‘Gift to the Class of 2021’ provides free community college classes to all graduating seniors

NHTI-Concord’s Community College is one of seven community colleges where this year’s graduating seniors can take a free course, courtesy of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the Foundation for New Hampshire Community Colleges.

Every student graduating from high school this year will be eligible for one free community college course, thanks to a partnership between the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the Foundation for New Hampshire Community Colleges

The “Gift to the Class of 2021,” a commitment of more than $1 million from the two foundations, will allow any graduating senior to take one course at any of the Community College System’s seven colleges, no matter their circumstances. No tests or financial aid applications are required, and the course can be a standalone class or one that leads to a certificate, degree, or credential. 

To enroll, students will meet with an admissions counselor and enroll in the course. From there, the counselor can help them navigate their next steps, including if they qualify for additional aid for more courses. 

“This is a tremendous opportunity for our young people, our businesses, and our state as a whole,” said Nicole Heimarck, the Executive Director for the NH Alliance for College and Career Readiness, which is a diverse and collaborative group focused on policy efforts to help all NH students graduate college and career ready.

“This class gift is a big step forward to ensuring that all young people have the opportunity to pursue a career path that they are passionate about,” she continued. “It tells them that their learning path can continue forward if they want it to, that we’re committed to their futures and the future of our state. For many, we hope that this course can open more doors to higher education and career opportunities.” 

The gift is designed to help students bypass financial and logistical hurdles that keep them from enrolling in post-secondary learning opportunities– and that have loomed larger than usual during the pandemic — and to make up for lost time.

“Our primary goal is to provide opportunities to this graduating class that has been so deeply impacted by the pandemic and thrown off course,” Michael Turmelle, Director of Education and Career Initiatives at the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, told Reaching Higher last week. “They’ve gone through 16 months of this, at precisely the time when they would have been engaged in a whole host of activities that would have prepared them for life after high school.” 

“New Hampshire’s graduating seniors should be incredibly proud, and you should know that New Hampshire is proud of you,” Richard Ober, President and CEO of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation said in a statement last week. “You have persevered to finish your high school careers under extraordinarily challenging circumstances. We hope that this gift, made possible by hundreds of generous New Hampshire people who are rooting for you, will help you take the next step toward your dreams.”

Troubling Statistics

Along with disruptions to their schedules, this year’s seniors had to navigate new ways of accessing school counselors, who play a key role in students’ post-secondary search and application process. Many weren’t able to take SATs, couldn’t find summer jobs last year, and faced additional challenges at home.

Statistics show the impact of those losses, Turmelle said. 

The number of graduating seniors matriculating directly into community college in New Hampshire dropped from 1,600 to 1,300 between 2019 and 2020. Nationally, the number of students filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has declined this year, as has the number of students making early decisions and meeting the May 1 deadline for college deposits. All of this comes at a time when the need for college-educated workers is outpacing the number of college graduates. 

“A lot more kids have no plans for the fall,” Turmelle said. “There are just really troubling signs on the horizon.”

The Community College Connection

The “Gift to the Class of 2021” addresses these worrisome trends by investing in educational equity, Turmelle said. While the free classes are available to all students, the two organizations  expect it will appeal most to those who don’t yet have plans.

“There’s a whole host of reasons why the Charitable Foundation is making a big bet on community college,” said Turmelle, who will speak about the gift as well as key issues facing higher education at a Higher Education Roundtable hosted by the NH Alliance for College and Career Readiness on Wednesday, May 19. 

First, community colleges tend to work with students who are “furthest from opportunity,” he said. Pell Grant eligibility, an indicator of income, is much higher among the community college population than among the four-year college population. 

Additionally, community colleges are versatile and easy to access. Students can quickly get a career credential, or they can stack programs on top of each other to advance in their fields.

“I hope New Hampshire students take advantage of this wonderful opportunity not only to gain a free course but also put themselves on a path to college success at institutions that are ready and eager to help them take that next step,” Susan Huard, Interim Chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire, said in a statement released last week.

Finally, community colleges are hyper-focused on the needs of their respective regions. They’re well connected to the businesses and industries in their area, serving as a key link between young people and viable careers.

“We have a flood of young people leaving the state because of the cost of college,” Turmelle said. “If we can connect students to the local community college, they may be more likely to get connected to a job in the region and therefore more likely to stay in New Hampshire.”

Read more about issues facing higher education in New Hampshire here

Vermont’s Success Story

The NH Charitable Foundation (NHCF), which awards millions of dollars in scholarships every year, devised the “Gift to the Class of 2021” in partnership with the Foundation for Community Colleges based on a similar initiative in Vermont that proved highly effective.

While every other state in the country saw a decrease in community college enrollment last year, Vermont’s enrollment doubled, thanks at least in part to a class gift by the McLure Foundation, offering a free community college class to high school seniors.

More than 50% of those who enrolled in courses last year were first-generation college students. About 90% completed the course and 70% passed. Many learned they were eligible for additional aid after enrolling the first class, and 81% of students surveyed said they planned to take more community college classes.

“It tells the story that we all intuitively know,” Turmelle said. “If costs and other barriers are removed, kids will come.”

To take advantage of the “Gift to the Class of 2021,” eligible students should contact the admissions office at their local community college. Academic counselors will be available to help students choose courses. Students can choose an online, hybrid, or in-person class. Graduating seniors who have already enrolled at CCSNH college for the fall are also eligible for the class gift.

This article was written by the NH Alliance for College and Career Readiness, a project of Reaching Higher NH. The Alliance is a diverse and collaborative group focused on bridging policy, communications, and engagement efforts to help all NH students graduate college and career ready. Alliance members include representatives from K-12 education, postsecondary education, business & industry, and the nonprofit sector. Learn more at www.TheNHAlliance.org

About the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation

The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation is New Hampshire’s statewide community foundation, founded in 1962 by and for the people of New Hampshire. The Foundation manages a growing collection of 2,000 funds created by generous individuals, families and businesses, and awards more than $50 million in grants and scholarships every year. The Foundation works with generous and visionary citizens to maximize the power of their giving, supports great work happening in our communities and leads and collaborates on high-impact initiatives. For more information, please visit www.nhcf.org or call 603-225-6641. To learn more about Charitable Foundation scholarship programs visit www.nhcf.org/scholarships.

About the Foundation for New Hampshire Community Colleges

The Foundation is a charitable organization established to provide greater access to educational opportunities through financial assistance for student scholarships, program development and enhancements to facilities across New Hampshire’s seven community colleges, which serve students in every region of the state. The Foundation actively seeks contributions from public and private sources to create scholarships and program partnerships that prepare students for in-demand, skilled jobs to meet the needs in the workforce. To learn more about supporting community college students, visit GiveNHCC.org.