President Obama just proposed a partnership between the federal government and states that would waive two years of tuition at community colleges for students who meet certain criteria.
That sounds significant—and it is. But to grasp the real impact of the plan, it’s important to understand what students pay to attend community college right now. How might the proposal change that? Let’s take a look:
How much is community-college tuition?
Average published tuition and fees at public two-year colleges are $3,347 for 2014-15, according to the College Board, which surveys colleges about their prices each year.
That’s just the national average, and tuition charges vary across the country. They’re lowest in California, where the average is $1,429, and highest in Vermont, where it’s $7,320. That’s higher than the average sticker price for in-state students at some states’ four-year colleges.
On the whole, though, tuition charges for community colleges are quite a bit lower than they are in other sectors.
What else do students have to pay for?
Tuition is just a fraction the full cost of attending college. Students must also find a way to pay for books, supplies, and transportation, as well as food and housing. In fact, for the average community-college student, tuition and fees account for less than a quarter of the total cost of attendance.
Food and housing charges for community-college students average $7,705, according to the College Board. Of course, most community-college students don’t live on a campus; they commute. So that figure is based on the living expenses colleges determine commuter students face. Colleges have a fair bit of latitude in how they come up with those numbers, and they don’t all use the same process.
In addition to food and housing, the average community-college student must come up with $1,328 for books and supplies, $1,735 for transportation, and $2,210 for other expenses, according to the College Board. Again, those figures come from the student budgets set by colleges rather than an average of what actual students have paid across the country.
Add that all up, and here’s what you get: The average price students face for attending a community college is $16,325 for one year, before financial aid.
What does financial aid cover now?
Financial aid, of course, makes a big difference, especially at community colleges, which enroll plenty of low-income students. The maximum Pell Grant for 2014-15 is $5,730, more than the average price of tuition and fees at a community college. So in a sense, community-college tuition is already free for the neediest students, even before the president’s proposal.
According to the College Board’s calculations, which count tax breaks as a form of financial aid, the average community-college student gets enough non-loan aid to cover tuition and fees and the first $1,740 of living expenses. That leaves the average student with about $6,000 in food and housing costs to cover either out of pocket or by borrowing money, as well as $5,000 more for books, transportation, and other expenses.
How would the free-college proposal change that?
The documents the Obama administration has released thus far are somewhat vague, and close observers of higher-education policy have offered two possible interpretations. The distinction may sound wonky, but it has big implications.
One possibility is that the proposal would be "last dollar," like the Tennessee model the Obama administration has cited as an influence. In such a system, the state and federal governments would pay the remaining part of tuition not already covered by financial aid. As we have seen, in some parts of the country that would result in no net gain for the neediest students, whose tuition is already more than covered by Pell Grants. It would, however, be a big break for students who don’t qualify for need-based aid now.
But there’s another possibility. Perhaps the administration doesn’t just mean for the proposal to cover tuition and fees for students who meet the criteria and enroll in qualified programs. It might also want to let students who qualify for Pell (or other grant aid) use that money to defray their other expenses, like room and board. If that’s the case, the neediest students would have at least the $5,730 maximum Pell Grant, and possibly more aid, to reduce what they pay beyond tuition. Several policy experts who have spoken with White House officials say they expect the plan would allow for aid to go toward those additional expenses. If so, that would be a huge improvement in college affordability.
Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.