Free Community College: Path to Equity or Creating a Two-Tiered System?

January 16, 2015

Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

Last week, President Obama proposed America’s College Promise, a program to make community college tuition free. The program sends the right messages to students and states, but also raised many questions, including how the program would interact with need-based aid, how the program would be funded, and how to ensure that students are well-served. The White House has provided some limited, additional, information to address the first two questions; however, the latter question has sparked considerable conversation in the college access community.

The proposed program sent a clear message to students that a high school diploma is no longer the expectation and that their country will help them financially to achieve this goal. But will free community college create a better path to equity for our students or exacerbate an already tiered higher education system?

NCAN asked members for feedback on the program. Many applauded the message to students and states, but the equity concerns—quality, capacity, undermatching, and more—came through clearly. As the proposal is debated in Congress, any unintended consequences must be considered.

Will America’s College Promise Increase Low Community College Success Rates? 

According the White House release, community colleges must offer “academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities. . . . Community colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.” However, there are no details on whether four-year institutions would be required to comply, how the reforms would be measured, and who (federal or state) would do the measuring. 

Low-income students are already more likely to attend (chart) community colleges, often with the goal of transferring. Unfortunately, data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (left) shows us that community college students have some of the lowest completion rates in the country, even when including those who transfer to other institutions. Considering the community college completion rates, will the “promising and evidenced based institutional reforms” bring about a better chance of success, either in a credential/degree or transfer, for community college students?

America’s College Promise calls on more students to go to community college, which means community colleges must educate more students. These students will likely be low-income and in need of academic and additional financial support. Community colleges will need to not only expand the space for students, but also improve academic supports, scheduling structures, and campus services. The community college system must be prepared to serve more students and to serve students better.

Will a Message of “Free” Further Promote a Two-Tiered System?

If the goal is to incent students who wouldn’t have gone to college at all to attend, then free community college is a good place to start. NCAN members, however, have many questions about unintentional consequences of “free” for students who are qualified to attend four-year institutions immediately and would receive the need-based aid to do so. With higher graduation rates and a shorter time to degree at four-year institutions, should we be encouraging these students to “undermatch” to community college when they could start immediately at four-year schools and have a better chance of success? 

Ideally, students who are qualified will still start at four-year institutions, especially those traditional-aged students who apply on time and complete the FAFSA. But, we know that low-income and/or first generation students are more likely to undermatch because they do not receive the guidance through the college application and financial aid process needed to help them get to their best fit institution. Without understanding the full need-based financial aid options, families could pressure students into the “free” option. Additionally, under-trained and/or overworked counselors could automatically push all low-income students toward community college even if a four-year school is a better fit. 

Some experts, like Richard Kahlenberg, argue that offering community college for free would create a more socioeconomically diverse student body. Others, like Richard Reeves, say that it could become a politically popular solution for “other people’s children.” Without reforms to greatly improve the quality and success rates at our community colleges, America’s College Promise could easily exacerbate a system where low-income and first generation students attend under-resourced community colleges and those who can pay receive all of the benefits of public flagships and private institutions. Both the White House and Congress should ensure that any new financial aid program reduces, rather than reinforces, equity in higher education. 

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