Is Community College Already Free? It’s More Complicated Than That, Researchers Say

One critique of the free-college movement, or even debt-free college, is that students have plenty of low-cost options within higher education. For instance, community colleges. “Public two-year colleges … are free or nearly free for low-income students,” wrote Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the U.S. Senate’s education committee, in a July 2015 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

Really? Two researchers took up the question and concluded the reality is more complex. In a policy brief, Sara Goldrick-Rab and David Monaghan, founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and a senior researcher at the lab, respectively, write that several factors complicate the picture.

Ms. Goldrick-Rab has argued in the past that two years of college should be made free, and her work is viewed as influencing President Obama’s proposal to make community college free.

Among the researchers’ complicating factors:

  • The College Board, a popular source for finding the price of a community college, doesn’t include students’ college expenses like room and board in its calculation of net price.
  • Averaging tuition and fees nationwide can be deceptive because two very populous states, California and Texas, have low-cost models of higher education. That can skew the average. Here’s a map from the brief that depicts net tuition and fees by state:
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“Making college affordable requires a comprehensive discussion grounded in the real prices confronting today’s students,” the researchers conclude. “This brief demonstrates that it is often the case that community college is not free. Let’s start there.”

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