Free Community College — Will It Really Solve the Problem? Bottom Line’s Greg Johnson Weighs In

2015 State of the Union Address

The release of President Obama’s free community college plan last week, confirmed by its inclusion in the 2015 State of the Union address, has created a buzz in the higher education community. Unfortunately, the buzz is likely to be both the beginning and the end of the initiative. Even if the President finds a way to clear the obvious political challenge of Republican opposition to increased spending on community college, there are many practical reasons to worry about this proposal.

Sure, on the surface, an opportunity for anyone to continue education beyond high school, at no charge, sounds great; but in my view, it is not the most effective or equitable way to address the college access and success needs of our country.

Community College Enrollment and Outcomes

With the Pell Grant levels set at $5,730 this year, in most states any Pell-eligible community college student who makes satisfactory progress and keeps her grades up can accumulate all of her credits — and likely get a refund check for books and other expenses without shelling out a dime. But in this same environment, fewer than 20 percent of Pell-eligible students are graduating. This situation suggests that simply removing the barrier of filling out a FAFSA form is unlikely to generate any meaningful new outcomes for Pell-eligible community college students. A much deeper intervention is therefore required.

Pressures on Overburdened Community College Systems

Eliminating student costs for community colleges would have an enormous impact on the community college system. Some estimates suggest that an additional two million students would be added to the system — one that is already struggling to raise educational outcomes for the seven million students it serves now. This expansion also has the potential to create added financial and recruitment pressures on state public systems, whose costs continue to increase as schools struggle to offer services that student populations demand.

Another challenge is that many of the degree programs across various state systems are not designed to help students succeed in the workforce after graduation. There are examples of boutique programs aligned with industry needs in various communities. While some students use their community college education as a springboard to further study at four-year institutions, many intend to graduate with an associate’s degree and begin their careers. For this latter group, community college curricula do not align with students’ goals. In fact, by and large, most community colleges are awarding degrees in areas that either require additional study at four-year institutions, or lead to employment that could have been achieved without additional schooling.

Addressing the Challenges with Focused Solutions

In my view, the real problem isn’t access, or even enrollment. Students get accepted and often show up on campus. The problem is that they aren’t graduating. Viewed through this lens, we understand that the issue is not just about cost, but about the community college system. And adding even more people to the system, before graduating those who are already there, doesn’t seem to serve our students, or our nation.

In order for President Obama’s proposal to work, a national focus should first be directed to the following efforts:

  1. Aligning community college curricula with the workforce needs of the communities they serve.
  2. Ensuring that community colleges effectively solve the challenge of remedial education by integrating it into standard course work, rather than continuing to invest in non-credit-bearing classes.
  3. Addressing the potential migration of students away from four-year public colleges. If four-year-bound students decide to go to community colleges first, this would create a vacuum on the public four-year college campuses (among the first- and second-year cohorts). Such a vacuum could, in turn, create enrollment challenges, which would lead to further revenue issues on four-year public campuses.
  4. Identifying and attacking the key problem in community college today, namely: The vast majority of students don’t complete a degree.

The solution to these challenges is not to make community college free, but to make an investment — an investment in the organizations that are solving this problem, an investment in aligning curricula to industry needs, an investment in data and technology to support and retain students. We must also hold college staff accountable to student success and tie Pell Grant reimbursement to the colleges that are successful at retaining and graduating students. These solutions are far more challenging than making things free, but they are the prerequisites to any potential change in the fee structure of community college.

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Sources:

Federal Pell Grants | Federal Student Aid (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2015.

Fastweb, Profile of Pell Grant Recipients (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2015.

FACT SHEET — White House Unveils America's College Promise Proposal: Tuition-Free Community College for Responsible Students (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2015.