Free tuition program bolsters first-time freshman enrollment

CHARLESTON, WV (AP) — West Virginia’s higher education oversight agencies say the community college enrollment rate has increased since the state began offering free tuition programs.

Enrollment figures released Thursday indicate a 10% increase in first-time freshman enrollment, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported. There also was a 27% increase in high school students taking college courses at one of the nine public community colleges.

Community colleges saw 3,020 first-time freshmen this fall, the highest since 2016, when there were about 3,290.

The increases, however, may not be directly connected to students who actually received free tuition through the program.

Data provided by Sarah Tucker, the top administrator of the oversight agencies, shows 1,300 of the 3,020 first-time freshman applied for the program and 380 of the those applicants received the money through it.

But that doesn’t mean the other students paid for their tuition. The programs requires students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“When the free community college bill was going around last legislative session, I said repeatedly that I thought there would be a number of students who would otherwise not go to college who would suddenly think to themselves ‘I can go to college now because it’ll be free,’ ” Tucker said.

Tucker said the number one deterrent against enrolling in college is cost.

She said requiring the students to fill out FAFSA forms showed them that already-existing federal and state grant money could mean free tuition anyway.

The paper said that in looking at the more than 5,000 applicants, not just the first-time freshmen applicants, about 1,200 applicants went tuition-free in this manner. That was more than the 1,000 applicants who actually ended up receiving money through the program.

Tucker said some states are beginning to require all students to fill out FAFSA forms.

The free tuition bill passed earlier this year.

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