Q and A: How to Get Ready for Potential “Free College” Legislation
Free college is an exciting proposition, but it requires significant cross-departmental planning. Who are the people that need to be in the room?
First, I want to acknowledge that this topic is of interest across campus. For instance, marketing, foundation, and academic support areas will all be interested in how they can support students and the college.
Of course, as a financial and student service initiative, two years of free college will involve the bursar, the chief business officer, and enrollment and financial aid directors. The bursar will consider how to implement, while the CBO will consider the potential impact on tuition revenues. The bursar can help the CBO by working with financial aid and enrollment management offices to identify which students may qualify and estimate how many credit hours to anticipate in lost tuition revenue.
What topics should be discussed early in the process? We don’t know a lot yet, but there has to be some advance thinking that could be done.
Early brainstorming should anticipate what legislation may look like and who will be eligible.
- How will Pell and other grants be applied?
- If there is an income cap, do we have that information for all students? Probably not since not everyone completes the FAFSA. What additional information will be needed to award free tuition?
- Do we have data to estimate the amounts that would be waived? In conjunction with financial aid and enrollment management, start to create models of how much tuition revenue may be waived if free-college legislation passes.
- Will the free tuition cover all per credit hour costs, or will various fees and additional per credit hour fees still be charged to students? How will fees that are not part of the legislation for free college be communicated to students and parents?
Also start projecting what this would look like financially. Financial aid, the bursar and the registrar can start developing models to estimate financial impact to students and to the college. These models may lead to working with the foundation office to consider filling in gaps for fees, books, and other costs not covered by free college legislation.
It is also important to work with information systems staff to start looking at how to identify and track students, as well as to track amounts of waived tuition. Related to systems, think about how to record the waived tuition in the general ledger and on student accounts. How will bills be presented to students?
In your experience, who takes the lead on implementing state or federal policies like this (proposed) one?
Lots of folks have a stake in such a broad piece of legislation—the CBO, bursar, and enrollment management and financial aid offices. The important thing is for these folks to begin working together and sharing information they get from their various communities. At this point, discussions are probably informal, but it is wise to get a head start because if legislation passes it will require quick action. In my experience, ultimately the vice president of student services and the CBO give a charge to the bursar, financial aid director and registrar to work with information services to determine how to implement the program.
As bursar, what conversations would you have with your staff? What connections would you want to make on campus?
Front-line staff are probably already getting questions from students and parents whether tuition will be free and when. I’d want my staff to know this is just a proposal! We don’t know if, when, how, or who will be granted free tuition. I’d also want them to know that a group is already meeting to discuss possible scenarios and they’ll be kept posted as new information comes in. Lastly, I would ask them to continue to share the kinds of questions they are getting from students.
As I said, many departments are interested in how the free college proposal may affect them, so make connections with as many colleagues as possible to hear their perspectives. Besides working closely with the CBO and financial aid and enrollment management offices, it would be prudent to talk to the foundation about helping students with non-tuition costs of attendance and to the bookstore about the impact of free tuition related to how students pay for books. For instance, with e-books, the cost may currently be included in the tuition bill. If tuition is free, will students be looking to e-bills to pay for books?
Finally, we need to consider how to communicate with third-party sponsors. Depending on the legislation, will agencies such as military, vocational rehabilitation, and workforce investment still pay tuition? What about employers?
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