Written by ACC Chancellor Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart

How We Can Make College Affordable for Everyone

When I first came to Austin Community College District in fall 2023, I knew I wanted to get to know our students and learn about our community. What I discovered wasn’t a surprise, but it was unsettling.

People are experiencing a life that’s not affordable, and they can’t find a way to climb out and up.

The cost of higher education is, more often than not, too great to bear. It’s the biggest challenge students today face. The numbers may surprise you — our data show that 58% of students who applied to go to ACC and then chose not to enroll say affordability is their main concern.

We have been asking students to mortgage their future — to take on big loan debt. They’re not enrolling because they can’t afford it or they don’t see the return on investment. There has to be a better way.

So, we asked ourselves at ACC — if we can eliminate that barrier, can we make college a reality for more people? We think so. Starting in the fall of 2024, we’re going to test it out.

With the support of our Board of Trustees, Austin Community College will pilot the ACC Free Tuition Program. It’s the first step in a bold idea to make college tuition free for everyone.

It’s going to take time to get there. So, we’re starting small, beginning with a pilot program that will cover the cost of tuition and general fees for the class of 2024 — that means all high school graduates from local school districts and charter schools across the ACC service area, as well as home-schoolers and GED completers.

We picked this group for a couple of reasons. When you look at the demographic shifts over the last decade, you’ll see that more students are not going to higher education than are going. Only 43% of high school graduates are enrolling in postsecondary education. Our competition isn’t between colleges and universities. Our competition is between somewhere and nowhere, and nowhere is winning. It’s a startling reality.

There are growing questions about the value of a degree because college has become almost unaffordable. We need to do better. There is a profound national discussion on the cost of higher education. A discount doesn’t mean anything on something already financially out of reach. Free means something to those who need us most.

This is just the beginning. It’s not about getting students in the door. It’s about eliminating barriers so that they not only come, they persist, they graduate, and they enter our local workforce with the skills and talents our community needs. This is particularly important for those students and families living in the war zone of poverty. We believe in those students so much, that we want them to use their financial aid and scholarship to support their lives, while we find resources to cover their tuition for learning.

A program like this won’t be easy. We have teams at ACC working to identify potential issues and develop solutions. I have no doubt a free tuition program can work at ACC, and I have no doubt it can grow. I think that’s exactly what our community needs.

Every student’s success is something we can all celebrate. It’s going to force us to think in new and different ways, and it will be worth it. We can lead the nation in redefining how colleges and communities work together to lift lives.

The future of our region, and the economic stability that we enjoy, rests on our ability to ensure that more of our students who are graduating high school get a credential of value that leads to a family-sustaining wage.