For Now, Excitement of Free Community College Program Raises Lots of Questions

January 16, 2015

The initially available information about the president’s free community college proposal leaves questions about implementation and additional costs unanswered. This piece expands on an earlier piece published at EAB.

The President’s proposal to make the first two years of community college free for students “who are willing to work for it” has generated tremendous buzz in the higher education community over the past several days. For a sector of higher education that has experienced significant funding cuts as well as recent enrollment declines, this politically unlikely plan has led to excitement as well as some criticism.

Anyone interested in the particulars of the plan can review the White House Fact Sheet here. The quick take on the details reveals that students, institutions, states, and the federal government will all have skin in the game:

  • Students must attend community college at least half-time
  • Students must maintain a 2.5 GPA and demonstrate that they are making progress toward a credential
  • Institutions will be incentivized to offer programs that transfer to four-year institutions or job-training programs with proven career outcomes
  • Institutions must implement proven practices that increase student retention and completion, such as the City
  • University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associates Program
  • The Federal government will cover 75 percent of the average community college tuition while requiring states to cover the remaining 25 percent
  • Early analysis indicates that students could use Pell Grants and other sources of aid to pay for non-tuition costs
  • The White House has estimated the program will cost $60 billion over 10 years.
Different Populations, Different Benefits

Proponents of the president’s plan and the Tennessee Promise initiative it is based on tout expanded access and opportunity for all students. However, critics focused on low-income student issues, such as the Institute for College Access and Success explain that the financial benefits of “free” community college primarily reach middle and upper income students. Low-income students pay little to no tuition already as the Pell Grant more than covers the average community college sticker price. This differential financial benefit is one of the primary criticisms of “last dollar” programs like the Tennessee Promise which only covers tuition expenses. The Obama administration’s proposal seems to have responded to these concerns by covering tuition first and allowing students to use additional funding for non-tuition expenses such as books and commuting costs.

Despite concerns about misaligned financial benefits, low-income students benefit in another way: a clear, simple path to higher education. In the first year of the Tennessee Promise, nearly ninety percent of the 2013 graduating high school population signed up for the program, a remarkable participation rate. Many of these students would have gone straight into the workforce if the Tennessee Promise had not made them believe they could afford college.

Navigating the College Labyrinth

A major challenge for community college leaders will be how to support these newcomers to higher education. Though many organizations have focused on the need for academic assistance, our research at EAB indicates that nonacademic factors such as financial distress and the lack of a college support network drive attrition, especially among first-generation, low-income, and working students. Our study, “Turning High School Partnerships into College Enrollments,” has explored how innovative community colleges have delivered student services in high schools and how they leverage community resources such as parents and mentors to build college navigation skills.

As the proposal requires a 2.5 GPA (higher than the 2.0 required in Tennessee), a minimum of half-time status, and steady progress to degree, questions remain about how colleges can ensure low-income, first-generation, and other at-risk students receive the greatest benefit from the program. Major questions include:

  • How can community colleges provide personalized guidance to their students in an era of fewer resources and staff?
  • What strategies encourage students to navigate the college environment on their own to increase limited staff capacity to assist students with more complex needs?
  • Which successful practices can be transferred across community college campuses?
  • How should community colleges reallocate resources and staff to the most impactful student services strategies?
  • How can colleges connect students with the most relevant services before student challenges become overwhelming?
Uncertain Financial Impact on Colleges

The President’s proposal also raises questions about the financial impact on colleges and students. These include:

  • Will this new initiative be a boon to community college bottom lines? How will it affect the current trend of state disinvestment in community colleges?
  • How will the proposal affect the way states and local districts set tuition and fees, as well as estimate the per student cost of education?
  • How will institutions be measured on graduation rates, career outcomes, and institutional reform implementation under the proposals requirements?

If more low-income, first-generation, and part-time students enroll, will the program acknowledge the completion challenges these populations carry and not penalize colleges trying to support them?
If the proposal increases enrollments, colleges will most likely see revenue bumps. Many college leaders would welcome enrollment increases after several years of declines. However, significant upticks in student numbers may put pressure on student support capacity and physical plants at community colleges. States and local districts may be caught funding the new capital or staff investments needed to meet student demand. If they cannot meet the requirements for student support or career outcomes, community colleges may come under additional scrutiny.

Despite Political Challenges, an Exciting Day for Community Colleges

Most commentators agree that the President’s plan has little chance of passing Congress. However, the idea may spread among the states and encourage new investment in higher education after years of shrinking state and local appropriations. Though major questions about supporting students and meeting financial challenges remain, the ambitious proposal has brought much needed attention and hope to community colleges across the nation.