Advice

8 Questions About ‘Free’ Community College

Is it just a gimmick? And if so, what is the goal?

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

October 17, 2016

As a longtime advocate of community colleges, I’m often asked what I think about the various proposals being floated to make a two-year college education free for all students.

My answer: I think the idea is an intriguing one, and early reports from the states where it’s being tried (such as Tennessee and Oregon) seem encouraging. At the same time, there’s no guarantee that such programs are going to be effective in the long run, nor does it necessarily mean other states — much less the entire country — should follow suit.

Speaking as someone who has spent nearly a decade writing The Two-Year Track column for The Chronicle and 30 years as a faculty member and administrator at five two-year colleges, I believe deeply in the community-college ideal of throwing open the doors of higher education to as many students as possible. But I have eight major concerns about "free" community college. At the very least, I believe these are questions that need to be asked before we move forward with an idea that sounds good but may well have unintended consequences.

What qualifies as a "community college"? In a recent post on The Chronicle’s Vitae site, I identified several different types of institutions that are often lumped together under the heading "community colleges." They range from ones that offer primarily technical and vocational degrees to two-year colleges that actually have some four-year degree programs.

Do we mean all of those types of community colleges when we talk about free education? Are we including any place that calls itself a community college, or that others refer to as such? Or are we talking mainly about technical colleges?

Most people probably assume a community college is a community college is a community college, but that isn’t the case. Perhaps before we get too giddy over the prospect of free college, we ought to define exactly what it is that people will be getting free.

How will it affect four-year institutions? A related issue is the impact that free community college might have on state four-year colleges.

I’ve spend the past 10 years arguing that more students (and parents) ought to be considering two-year colleges, for both financial and personal reasons. Students who are struggling to pay for their education, or who lack the maturity to live on their own at age 18 — as well as high-school students taking dual-enrollment classes, adults heading back to school after a long layoff, and a host of others — can often benefit from their local community college’s low tuition and proximity to home.

That said, not every student is best served by attending a community college. For those who can afford it, and who possess the requisite maturity, a four-year institution may well be the better option. Indeed, some students need the challenge of independence and would feel like they’re just spinning their wheels at the local two-year campus. That was the case with my own children, who all took dual-enrollment courses in high school but, at age 18, were clearly ready to leave home.

How would such students be affected if they are lured away from a four-year college by the promise of free tuition at a two-year campus? What might be the consequences to a university system if enough of them are lured away?

Is it just a gimmick? I admit: When I first heard about these free-college proposals, my immediate thought was, "But for those who need it, community college is already basically free."

According to the College Board, the average cost of in-state tuition at a community college during the 2015-16 academic year was $3,435. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education reports that the maximum Pell Grant award for that same year was $5,775 — and the average for 2014-15 was $3,673.

Add to that a host of other programs that pay or help pay tuition for tens of thousands of students — including the GI Bill, employer reimbursement, and dual-enrollment programs in many states — and one wonders: Why exactly do we need free community college, when the two-year sector is already essentially free to all but the most affluent?

If it is just some sort of gimmick, then what is its goal? Merely to turn students’ heads by offering something they were already going to receive, anyway — like the "free gift" that advertisers are so fond of? Or is the goal to divert low-income (and, in many cases, low-performing) students away from state universities?

Who would qualify? Are these programs only for those in the lowest income brackets, or will free community college also include the middle class? And how do we define "middle class"? Will there be an income cutoff, or an "Expected Family Contribution," as with Pell Grants?

And what about academic requirements? Many community colleges have open-door policies, meaning they admit virtually any student with a high-school diploma or GED, regardless of grades or standardized test scores. In some cases, the diploma or GED isn’t even required. Will all of those students be eligible to receive free tuition at the community college of their choice? Or will there be some sort of minimum competency expected?

Will it be adequately funded? The history of education at all levels — not to mention the history of government — is rife with well-meaning programs that were launched amid great fanfare, with piles of "start-up" cash, and then basically left to fend for themselves. As fiscal reality sets in, hopes can be dashed as promises go unfulfilled.

A good example is the Hope Scholarship in my home state of Georgia. Originally founded to provide free tuition at state institutions for students with a high-school GPA of 3.5 or better, and funded by the state lottery, the program has in recent years had to reduce both the amount of the awards for most students and the number of students who qualify for the maximum.

Will free community college suffer the same fate? Will it initially cover everyone, until the money starts to run out, after which only certain students will qualify? At that point, how will we decide who gets to go to community college free and who doesn’t?

Will students value it? It’s human nature not to place much value on things that don’t cost us very much — relationships that come "too easy," the old car our parents gave us as teenagers, the library book that gets shoved under the seat cushion and forgotten. Does the same principle apply to education? It shouldn’t, but sadly I fear that it often does, and our public-school system is Exhibit A.

Of course, there’s more than one kind of cost and some are more important than money — like hard work, stress, personal sacrifice. When people pay for something like education in those currencies, they tend to value it very highly indeed. So perhaps free community college will not be a complete bust in this regard: Students who really want a college education, and who are willing to work hard for it, will no doubt value it even if they didn’t have to pay tuition.

I just wonder how many students will fall into that category. Consider my early-morning dual-enrollment students — good kids, all — whose tuition, fees, and books are all covered by the state. I often get the sense that they don’t place a great deal of value on the experience (or on the books, which they’re constantly leaving lying around). No doubt that’s due in part to simple immaturity, but I wonder how much they would value this incredible opportunity if they all had to work menial, part-time jobs to help pay for it.

Will the education itself have value? This is not intended as a reflection on my colleagues at community colleges around the country, whose efforts to prepare students for the work force and university transfer are often little short of miraculous. To explain my thinking here, let me return to Georgia’s Hope Scholarship.

What happened to Hope was very simple — and eminently predictable. Initially, in order for students to qualify for the scholarship, they had to have at least a 3.5 GPA in high school. So over time, what do you think happened? Give yourself a gold star if your answer was "grade inflation." High schools, in an effort to produce more "Hope Scholars," gradually began lowering standards (perhaps without fully realizing it) to the point where there were simply too many students with the requisite GPA Even though lottery revenues were rising, there wasn’t enough money to cover them all — so the state had to decrease the amount most received and raise the standard for full tuition to a 3.8 GPA

This story serves, for me, as a kind of cautionary tale for the advocates of free community college. Surely we’re not going to allow failing students to keep re-enrolling, semester after semester, for no tuition. So how much pressure will faculty members feel to make sure students can keep their free-tuition awards? How much pressure might be exerted from above, by administrators and state officials? Again, education in general has a very poor record when it comes to this sort of thing.

How will we define success — and at what cost? Let’s say that a given state — or even the entire nation — decides to offer free tuition at a two-year college to anyone who wants it. How will we decide if the program has been a success? By the number of students who enroll? The percentage who complete an associate degree? Or who go on to complete a bachelor’s degree?

Anyone who works at a community college already knows that simply tracking those statistics can be very tricky, and the numbers themselves are often very misleading.

Perhaps more to the point, how and when will we know if such a program has failed? Suppose that after spending all those tax dollars to make community college free for all, we find that persistence and completion rates have not significantly improved. It’s tempting to assume that, because we’re funneling more people into the system, we’ll have more coming out the other side with degrees, but that isn’t necessarily going to be the case. In the past decade, even as college enrollments boomed, completion rates stagnated, and the percentage of Americans with at least a two-year degree increased by only a couple of percentage points.

Would such an outcome be worth all the money that a free-tuition program is likely to cost? I don’t have the answer — to that or any of my other questions. But I do believe we should be thinking seriously about these issues before we rush headlong into yet another program that may, in the long run, accomplish little more than allowing us to pat ourselves on the back for "caring about education."

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University Perimeter College. His latest book is Welcome to My Classroom. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.