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Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget would make community college free for thousands of Philadelphians

The mayor's plan would provide scholarships to city residents from low- and moderate-income families who attend community college full time and who graduated from a high school in the city.

The new scholarship program could help make tuition free for as many as half the students at Community College of Philadelphia.
The new scholarship program could help make tuition free for as many as half the students at Community College of Philadelphia.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Mayor Jim Kenney on Thursday will propose significant new investment in students who attend the Community College of Philadelphia: $63 million over five years for scholarships that could make it tuition-free for thousands of people.

City residents from low- and moderate-income families who attend full time and who graduated from a Philadelphia high school — public, private, cyber, or home school — would be eligible. The scholarships would cover tuition not already paid for with state or federal aid, as well as $1,500 per semester for food, books, and transportation.

The college also would provide students with enhanced coaching, academic advising, and tutoring to keep them on track to get their associate degrees within three years.

City officials estimate the aid would help 6,500 students over five years — 2,300 of them in 2020-21. That’s equivalent to nearly half of the college’s full-time enrollment in fall 2019, which was 4,763.

“We want to make sure we prepare Philadelphia high school students for economic prosperity,” said Otis Hackney, chief education officer for the city.

The budget Kenney will unveil in an address before City Council on Thursday will also propose giving the college an additional $20 million over five years for staff and other support for the new scholarship program, and a one-time $4 million boost for capital projects.

The new money comes in addition to the $36.1 million the city provides the college annually.

Some members of City Council have proposed more money for the college in past years, and this week suggested “training stipends” for community college students as part of a poverty action plan. Whether they will go for Kenney’s plan is uncertain.

» READ MORE: Is Philadelphia properly funding its community college?

“We’re pretty optimistic that this will get a lot of support,” said Rob Dubow, city finance director.

The additional money would not require new or increased taxes, but come from general funds, Dubow said.

In total, the mayor will request about $18.4 million in new money for the college next year, $10.4 million for the scholarships, $4 million for supports, and $4 million for capital.

The scholarships are patterned after a similar program at the City University of New York, said Maari Porter, deputy chief of staff for policy and strategic initiatives, who noted that about 200 communities nationwide and nearly half the states have variations.

Kenney’s plan comes amid other recent scholarship proposals for public colleges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Gov. Tom Wolf last month proposed $204 million in tuition assistance for students at Pennsylvania’s 14 universities. Gov. Phil Murphy last month proposed $50 million to allow eligible undergraduate students to attend any four-year public college or university in New Jersey tuition-free for two years. (There’s already a program at community colleges.)

» READ MORE: Gov. Tom Wolf calls for $204 million in tuition assistance for students at Pa. colleges

The Community College of Philadelphia launched a scholarship program in 2015, which as of last year had provided aid to 900 students. But that only helped with tuition and only served first-time, full-time freshmen. Kenney’s proposed scholarships would be open to returning students, too.

The goal of the mayor’s proposed program, Porter said, is to allow “students to start and complete — emphasis on complete — a community college education without taking on mountains of student debt.” The college also would aim to improve graduation and retention rates and close the gap between white and black students.

“Currently black students take nearly a year longer to complete than white students, thereby incurring more debt along the way,” Porter said.

» READ MORE: From 2015: Community College of Philadelphia goes tuition-free for hundreds

Under the program, students whose expected family contribution is less than $15,000 would be eligible for the scholarship. Students must maintain a 2.0 GPA to stay eligible for the scholarship, which is named after Octavius Catto, a prominent educator and civil rights activist from Philadelphia who was murdered in 1871. Undocumented students are eligible to apply, city officials said.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at