Regardless of how the numbers are crunched, Haywood Community College’s tuition-free plan is a resounding success.

Last spring, college leaders announced that any 2019 graduate from a school in Haywood County could attend the community college for free. There was one caveat, however. Students would need to first apply for financial aid programs available to all students and those funds, if awarded, would be used first.

The balance of the needed funds to pay for tuition — and even help out for items such as textbooks or other costs — would come from the college’s foundation.

Now that fall classes are under way, it is easy to tell if the program worked.

Michael Coleman, the vice president of student services at the college, has tracked the numbers, which indicate a 16.5 percent increase in student admissions from the 2018 freshman class to that in 2019.

“We had 148 recent Haywood County graduates enroll compared to 127 last year,” Coleman said. “Of that number, 29 received the tuition-free guarantee. But the bigger picture is 62 students (not counting the tuition-free) were awarded financial aid. We did what we wanted to do, which was to increase access to education.”

Enrollment up

Traditionally when the economy is booming, community college enrollment drops. That’s been the case for Haywood and other community colleges in the region for the past several years.

This year, however, Haywood Community College numbers increased 2 percent.

“Our total enrollment is up,” Coleman said, “which is really great because haven’t seen an increase in quite some time. The fact that we’re turning the corner in FTE enrollment is really a good thing. Our average age also decreased a bit this year to 24. Last year it was 25. When you take out high school dual enrollment and early college numbers, our average age is 27, and last year is was 28, so as a college, we’re getting younger.”

Those statistics are ones Coleman attributes to tuition-free guarantee.

The numbers indicate a “huge success for the college in the midst of economy doing so well,” Coleman said.

“This speaks volumes to the efforts our college has made in terms of increasing access and removing barriers,” he added. “It worked out very well for us as an institution, but more importantly, it worked out well for our students. A lot of people were able to continue their education who may not have had access otherwise.”

Ongoing opportunity

The Haywood Community College Foundation provided about $70,000 to cover the 2019 costs of the tuition-free guarantee program.

The board has voted to continue the program next year.

Pam Hardin, foundation director, said the board was “thrilled” to be able to implement, and now continue, the program.

“We have a large endowment that we are using for this program,” she said. “We have an investment policy that allows us to pull a draw every year, so we’re using the proceeds from our investments.”

Student opportunities such as the tuition-free program are made possible through the generosity of donors,” Hardin stressed.

One of the foundation’s strategic plans is to increase donations through endowments and estate giving so programs such as this can grow, Hardin said.

“It creates a legacy, so it’s a wonderful opportunity for a family to create a legacy gift,” Hardin said.

Great opportunity

Maggie Mehaffey is a 2019 graduate who is taking advantage of the tuition-free program.

“Actually, I had planned on going to go to Western,” she said, “and then a friend told me about the free tuition. I talked to my mom, and we felt it was a smart decision to go to Haywood. Number one, it saves me a lot of money, and two, I won’t have to work as much, so I can focus on school.”

Mehaffey began her high school years at Tuscola. By her junior year she was technically home-schooled, but spent all of her time in the dual enrollment program on the Haywood Community College campus.

She said the dual enrollment program where high school students can take classed on the college campus, felt like it was a better opportunity.

“In high school, I didn’t have enough responsibility put on me and I felt I wasn’t prepared, but dual enrollment route gave me freedom and responsibility,” she said. “My favorite thing in entire world is making connections, and I love talking to people. Dual enrollment allowed me to meet a whole group of new people and make new connections.”

Mehaffey is currently pursuing an associate in science degree with her end goal to become a dermatologist or dentist. She became involved in the college’s student governing association and is currently the president.

Since her sister is now attending Western, the family has a good idea of how much is being saved through the tuition-free program.

She estimates her sister is paying about $3,000 to attend Western compared to a virtually free college experience at Haywood.

“I’ve always dreamed of being independent and not being a burden on my parents,” she said. “This saves us money.”

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