Higher Education

Critics question Obama’s free community college idea

Students, experts pick apart the pros and cons of proposal meant to speed up degrees

As President Barack Obama touts his idea for free community college in appearances around the country, Felipe Bezerra is dubious.

“Tuition shouldn’t be free” for those who can afford to pay, said Bezerra, a student at Rio Hondo College, a community college near Los Angeles.

Rio Hondo College, a community college near Los Angeles.

Rio Hondo College, a community college near Los Angeles.

An undocumented immigrant, Bezerra is ineligible for federal aid, but already pays no tuition, thanks to California’s waivers for needy students. About half of his state’s community college students qualify for those waivers; the rest pay, on average, a comparatively modest $1,429 per year.

Bezerra, who hopes to complete a four-year degree in petroleum engineering, would prefer that all this work instead go into lowering the cost of far pricier four-year institutions.

“I don’t know how I’ll afford to finish my bachelor’s degree,” he said. “It’s so expensive. I wish the president could keep college costs down for universities.”

Related: Rich school, poor school: How the class divide is widened by gaps in college counseling 

Obama, in his State of the Union address, proposed making two years of community college “as free and universal in America as high school is today.” The White House estimates that this would cost $60 billion over 10 years. Its odds in the Republican Congress are slim. Tennessee, however, will start its own, lower-cost plan in the fall, and other states are considering the idea.

While some experts who have closely considered the president’s proposal in the weeks since he unveiled it think it can help accomplish what Obama says he’s after—increasing the number of people with degrees—others aren’t so sure. They point out that community college tuition already is free for low-income students, since they qualify for existing financial aid that typically covers those costs.

Nationwide, tuition at community colleges averages $3,347 per year, according to the College Board. That’s more than covered by the $5,730 that low-income students can receive in a Pell Grant, the principal form of federal financial aid. So while the poorest students might benefit from getting free tuition and using the $5,730 to cover books and living expenses — and thus avoid having to take time away from studying to work — critics of the president’s proposal say it would mostly help families that earn too much for their children to qualify for Pells.

Related: The financial aid policy that shuts out millions of students 

Those critics also question whether the president’s plan would produce more job-ready graduates. Making tuition at community colleges free, they say, would encourage the neediest students to enroll at the lowest-funded colleges with the lowest graduation rates.

Although community colleges enroll more high-needs students than four-year universities and colleges, they spend significantly less per student, the American Institutes for Research reports. Just under 40 percent of community college students earn a degree within six years, compared with almost 74 percent at private nonprofit schools and about 63 percent at public universities, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

Deborah Santiago of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit that advocates for Latino students, said that while the free-tuition message could have “a powerful impact” on first-generation students, they need more support to complete college. “It costs more for these students, and community colleges have fewer resources.”

Related: Catholic colleges tell poor students: Go somewhere else

The promise of free tuition could make the problem worse by drawing more students to already crowded community college campuses, said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity.

“If states don’t spend more to increase capacity,” community colleges will end up with long waiting lists, Siqueiros said. Affordability doesn’t help if a student can’t get into the right class or find help figuring out what classes to take, she said.

Starting at a community college lowers a student’s odds of ever earning a bachelor’s degree, said Matthew Chingos, research director at the Brown Center on Education Policy. In spite of this, lowering the price “can nudge students to attend lower-quality institutions.”

Not everyone thinks this is a bad idea.

According to research conducted by scholars at Stanford and Harvard, a “vast majority” of lower-income students already go to less-selective colleges than they’re qualified to attend. This puts them at a disadvantage, since high achievers are more likely to earn degrees if their classmates are also high achievers.

Related: Colleges that pledged to help poor families have been doing the opposite

But those findings have been oversold, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin professor who advocates for two free years at community colleges and public universities with subsidies for low-income students’ living expenses.

In a study of low-income high school graduates, Goldrick-Rab found that enrolling in community college raised their odds of earning bachelor’s degrees.

The “free college” message could also have the benefit of drawing middle-class students to community colleges, making them more diverse, said Halley Potter, a Century Foundation fellow.

“There’s something about free that’s very clear to everyone,” Potter said.

That could counteract the pronounced trend of poorer students ending up at community colleges while private nonprofit and flagship public universities enroll more-affluent ones, said Potter, who worked on the Century Foundation’s Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal.

With a more diverse group of students, community colleges could gain political capital and the funding that goes with it, she said. That would help everyone.

“Anything identified as ‘for the poor’ is easier to cut,” said Matt Reed, vice president for academic affairs at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts. A more “middle-class identity” would give “political protection” to community colleges.

Siqueiros agrees. If more middle-class students choose community college, “it could create an environment where states step up on funding,” she said.

But there’s another possibility: “Savvier middle- and upper-middle-class students could be competing for spots with low-income students,” Siqueiros said. “One population ends up pushing out another.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education here.

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Joanne Jacobs, formerly of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, is a freelance journalist who blogs at joannejacobs.com. See Archive

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