Austin Community College Passes Free Tuition Program for Eligible High School Seniors 

Last week the Austin Community College (ACC) Board of Trustees approved a proposal to offer free tuition for high school graduates and GED completers starting with the class of 2024.  

This pilot program – referred to as the College Affordability Plan – will fully cover tuition for the next five years of high school graduates and will be reevaluated after five years. The program would cover the entirety of tuition costs for all public, private, and charter school high school graduates as well as GED completers in the ACC service area, which includes Austin ISD, Del Valle ISD, Elgin ISD, Hays CISD, Leander ISD, Manor ISD, and Round Rock ISD. The proposal does not include any restrictions based on GPA or income.  

The primary goal of the proposal is to educate students who would not have otherwise pursued higher education. In the proposal, the college cited data showing that 12,000 central Texas high school students did not pursue higher education after graduating in 2023. The projected enrollment increases will not only benefit the individual students that take part but will help Central Texas meet its general workforce needs. 

“People are experiencing a life that’s not affordable, and they can’t find a way to climb out and up,” ACC Chancellor Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart said in a statement. “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.” 

Students who take part in the free tuition pilot will have three years – beginning the Fall after their high school graduation – to complete their associate’s degree and to receive any other desired credential or certification. After receiving their associate’s degree, students will be granted two additional years of free tuition to complete their bachelor’s degree, if they so choose, for a total of five years of free tuition. 

Notably,  the ACC pilot program is a “first dollar” program, meaning that students will be permitted to use other aid that they receive from other sources for other college expenses like books, childcare, and housing. This contrasts with other free community college tuition programs in Texas, such as Alamo College in San Antonio, which is a “last dollar” program in which state and federal aid goes to pay for tuition before the college covers the rest of tuition bill. 

Consideration of this pilot program was first announced by Lowery-Hart in January of this year. Since then, the board and staff discussed and worked on fine tuning the policy before it was ultimately approved last week. Of the nine-person board, eight members voted for the pilot program and one abstained.  

ACC AFT played an integral part in electing the board members that ultimately passed the pilot program. Union members worked to elect the progressive members of the ACC Board that pushed this important proposal forward. 

“ACC AFT is very excited by the passage of the free tuition plan,” said ACC AFT President Dr. David Albert. “Thanks to the organizing power of our members and their generous COPE donations, we have – over many years – helped to elect a progressive board of trustees, and that board has appointed a chancellor committed to social justice. By passing this free tuition plan, the board has truly aligned our college’s budget with our community’s values.” 

In addition to the newly approved free tuition program at ACC, at the behest of ACC AFT, the board has recently approved an expansion of employee benefits that would allow all ACC employees and their dependents to take classes at ACC for free. 

The board was only able to fund this generational investment into the education of central Texas thanks to the historic community college funding overhaul that was undertaken by the Texas legislature last session which sent $683 million in total to community colleges across the state. House Bill 8 by Rep. Gary Van Deaver (R-New Boston), the community college finance bill from last session, sent $6.8 million to ACC. 

HB 8 offers community colleges funding based on student achievement outcomes. The college hopes that enrollment increases at ACC campuses thanks to this program will increase the state funding that ACC receives from HB 8, thus incentivizing the continuation of the program. 

The ACC pilot program is evidence of the big things that Texas schools can do to support their communities when they are adequately supported by the state. While HB 8  increased the state’s funding of community college by around 30%, the basic allotment, the foundational amount of funding per public school student, has not increased since 2019.