ACC’s free tuition pilot can be an economic game-changer in Central Texas | Commentary

Fran Rosebush Baylor
Originally Published in the Austin American-Statesman
Students study at Austin Community College Highland campus on Sept. 7, 2023. (Credit: Mikala Compton/American-Statesman/File) (Credit: Mikala Compton)

Last year, approximately 12,000 graduating high school seniors in Central Texas chose not to pursue any type of post secondary education or training credentials in Texas.

Yet, the importance of attaining new skills post-high school for financial security and upward mobility has never been more critical. According to Austin-based E3 Alliance, individuals without credentials past high school face only a 12% chance of earning a living wage. Considering Central Texas’ mounting affordability challenges, those without continued skills attainment don’t have a fighting chance of remaining and thriving in our community. Moreover, by 2030, most jobs in Texas will require some form of post-secondary education or credential. The skills that are needed are constantly changing, and community colleges are often best suited to prepare the community for evolving workforce demands.

Because of these daunting challenges, we are excited to see Austin Community College (ACC) proposing a groundbreaking solution: a pilot program to provide free tuition for high school seniors and GED completers throughout the ACC service area. If approved by the ACC Board of Trustees in April, this program will cover tuition for the graduating class of 2024.

The Central Texas chapter of the Asset Funders Network (AFN CTX) stands behind ACC’s proposal, recognizing it as a transformative and essential step toward greater economic mobility in our region. AFN CTX is a diverse coalition of grantmakers working toward identifying and resolving persistent financial and economic barriers keeping people from achieving financial health. Our charter members include grant maker representatives from Indeed, St. David’s Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, Google Fiber, United Way for Greater Austin, Texas Mutual, Austin Community Foundation, Wells Fargo, and the Couch Family Foundation.

As asset-building grantmakers, we see ACC’s proposal as a game-changer to building wealth and economic mobility in our region. With its “first dollars to tuition” approach, the initiative would be an innovative complement to existing financial aid avenues like scholarships and Pell grants, addressing broader financial barriers hindering student success such as housing, childcare, and textbooks.

AFN members have witnessed the transformative impact of similar programs and see ACC’s proposal as the next big step to addressing Central Texas’ stark economic divide. Consider, for example, the critical training and fieldwork available through ACC’s Environmental Science and Technology Program, and consider how many more Central Texas residents can get qualified for the growing number of green infrastructure jobs that will be available in the coming years. The free tuition program can prepare more Central Texas residents for these jobs and help employers find more of the skilled talent they need.

As ACC prepares to present this proposal to its board of trustees, we urge our community partners to lend their support and consider the potential impact of this pilot program on our region’s vitality and prosperity. This initiative promises to be a beacon of hope, a catalyst for change, and a stepping stone toward a more inclusive and thriving Central Texas. AFN CTX stands ready to work with ACC and our community to identify and highlight the means to sustain this worthy program, should the pilot prove successful.

Together, we can ensure that more Central Texans have the chance to pursue their dreams and contribute to a more equitable and prosperous future for all of us.