Austin Community College OKs free tuition program for eligible 2024 high school graduates

Austin Community College's Board of Trustees passed Chancellor Russell Lowery-Hart's free tuition proposal Monday night.
Austin Community College's Board of Trustees passed Chancellor Russell Lowery-Hart's free tuition proposal Monday night.

Austin Community College will offer free tuition to eligible high school graduates starting this fall after the institution's board of trustees on Monday night approved the five-year program.

"Today is one of those days that we'll look back on in history and know that ACC laid the marker for something that will be definitive in making our community more livable and more effective and more economically viable," ACC Chancellor Russell Lowery-Hart told the American-Statesman after the vote.

The pilot program will cover the full $87 per credit hour fee for in-district 2024 high school graduates for three years and for an additional two years for students who decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree at ACC. The college has committed to covering tuition for all future classes in subsequent years for the next five years.

More: Free tuition at ACC for graduating high schoolers? Here's what the chancellor is proposing

All 2024 high school seniors in the Austin, Del Valle, Elgin, Hays, Leander, Manor and Round Rock school districts are considered to be within ACC's district, as are those in the city of Austin and portions of the Eanes and Pflugerville school districts. Those in the service area who completed their GED diploma after July 1, 2023, are also eligible.

Students from the 19 school districts within ACC’s service area but who are not in-district would only pay the out-of-district fee, or $201 per semester credit hour, about a 30% reduction in tuition.

Textbooks and program-specific fees are not covered under the ACC Free Tuition pilot program, and nonservice area students and those who are currently enrolled but not class of 2024 seniors are not eligible to participate.

The board on Monday approved the pilot program with eight members voting in favor and one abstaining. Barbara Mink, the board's chair, abstained in favor of devoting more attention to current students' needs, such as mental health support and child care.

"I'd rather see the work done first before we offer free tuition," Mink said at the meeting in explaining her vote.

The board passed the vote with a plan to create a process for current students who are 15 credit hours away from completing their degree to apply for funding to cover the rest of their schooling. That plan was not passed as an amendment, but members were in favor of discussing at their next meeting what this process would look like and the expected cost.

"We all came at this knowing this was the right thing to do," board member Gigi Edwards Bryant said in an interview after the vote. "We just had to figure out how to do it right."

Why is ACC offering free tuition?

ACC said that 59% of its current students said in a survey that they struggle financially. In a fall 2023 survey, 58% of prospective students who began or completed an application said they didn’t enroll because of costs to attend ― even as ACC's tuition has stayed flat for 11 years.

The free tuition proposal was first presented in January by Lowery-Hart, who just entered his sixth month on the job, and ACC’s Chief Financial Officer Neil Vickers.

Promise programs ― initiatives that offer free tuition for students in a certain area ― have been shown to increase enrollment overall, with large boosts for Black, Hispanic and female students, according to a 2020 analysis by the American Educational Research Association. There are 25 other "promise-like" programs in Texas.

ACC's pilot is a first dollar in program — a rarer model that covers a student's full tuition regardless of any scholarships they might have been awarded as opposed to the last dollar in models that cover the difference between tuition costs and scholarships. This allows students to use their scholarships toward living costs like child care, textbooks, housing and transportation to support their ability to stay enrolled and finish their degrees.

The ultimate goal is to expand free tuition for all students, according to Lowery-Hart. ACC's College Affordability Plan framework outlines that Phase 2, which has not yet been approved, could allow for students' guardians to enroll for free, and Phase 3 could expand it for everyone. Lowery-Hart said the board could potentially consider interim expansions for current students or dependents of employees.

Lowery-Hart told the Statesman the tuition-free program could increase ACC's enrollment by 300 students in the first year. ACC will also be looking at retention rates and overall completion rates.

"We think over the course of five years this (pilot program) could affect thousands and thousands of lives," Lowery-Hart said.

Board members were initially scheduled to vote on the tuition-free proposal in March but held off until Monday. Lowery-Hart said officials spent that time connecting with high school counselors and superintendents to determine how to best deliver the news to students.

How will ACC fund its free tuition plan?

ACC's plan estimates the program will cost $7.5 million for the first year, $14 million in fiscal 2026 and then level out at $18 million. The estimates represent opportunity costs from lost tuition but don't count the additional costs ACC could incur if increasing enrollment creates more operating costs, Lowery-Hart told the board.

House Bill 8 ― a new merit-based community college funding model that Texas lawmakers approved last year and that rewards the schools for earned credentials of value, and not just student enrollment ― created an $6.8 million surplus for ACC, making space in the budget for it to afford this program, according to the college affordability plan. Combined with Austin’s growing economy, ACC’s fiscal 2024 surplus is projected at more than $18 million.

In related news: Texas is revamping how community colleges are funded. Here are some of the proposed rules.

Though state funding for ACC under HB 8 is expected to grow if this program is successful at graduating more students, a financial working group is searching for partners to help the college fund the tuition-free program to ensure its long-term financial stability.

"Once we have some preliminary data, we would make a compelling case to get our philanthropy and corporate partners to help fund paying for it and then expanding," Lowery-Hart said.

Since the initial meeting in January when Lowery-Hart first presented the proposal to the board, he has created seven working groups to further plan and design the program. The groups expressed their confidence at Monday's meeting in their ability to see the program through.

What can 2024 ACC graduates expect?

High school seniors who choose to enroll in ACC after graduation can expect a first-year experience package and an online orientation to introduce them to the college, the board said at its meeting.

Board member Steve Jakobs called the program "a pilot for broader change." Lowery-Hart said it was a historic moment, and another step toward serving the broader community and creating more equity in education.

"I want to tell them to come to us," Bryant said. "Be a part of who we are, fully committed to what we're giving them, and then pass it on to the next generation."

Clarification: Students who are not in ACC's service area are not eligible, but out-of-district students are eligible but must pay the out-of-district fee. Additionally, dual credit 2024 class of high school seniors currently enrolled at ACC are eligible for the free tuition program.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: ACC to offer free tuition to eligible 2024 high school graduates