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Cost of free community college
Tristan Wright-Crishon works in a music technology lab at Queensborough Community College.

When I taught consumer finance to law students and consumer advocates, I always warned my students about “free” financial products. Few things, I told them, are truly free.

Every time my students saw the word free, I urged them to focus on the three “C’s”: costs; catches and consequences. One or more of these three “C’s” would almost always be present – whether visible or intended. The task was to figure out how the provider of the so-called free product was moving money out of the consumer’s pocket into the provider’s pocket.

It should not be surprising that when the White House announced it was proposing free community college, I was not immediately overjoyed by the idea of free. What are the costs, catches and consequences?

Related: As a whole new kind of college emerges, critics fret over standards

We want more and more Americans – from young adults onward – to receive quality post-high school education.

With the growing equity gap between low and high income families, we need to enable more low income families to access higher education for which “cost” has been a barrier to entry and a burden to carry post graduation.

Employers bemoan the absence of diversity in the technology field,, suggesting there are no suitably trained candidates for existing jobs. To remediate this situation, we want to close the ever-present achievement gap along the entire educational pipeline: starting as toddlers, low income youth fail to progress at the same speed and with the same success as their higher income peers. The gap is acute in the STEM disciplines. For example, in high schools with the highest percentage of African American and Latino students, 25 percent do not even offer Algebra II and one-third do not offer chemistry. African American and Latino students account for only 15 percent of the students who take Advanced Placement tests in calculus and physics.

Related: Higher education is headed for a shakeout, analysts warn

The president’s proposal is designed to provide greater equality for all. That goal is spot-on but here are three C’s that bring to the fore the incapacity of free community college, as presently configured, to get us across the goal line.

“Free community college alone will not improve our nation’s inequality gap. We need to focus on even tougher issues like poverty and powerlessness.”

First, the president’s free community college proposal makes the same funding available to all students – rich and poor – and that’s a cost problem.

It can’t be right to make what limited money there is available to those students who do not need the Federal or State government support.

Seems to me that we would want free to be targeted to those students whose Pell grants do not cover the full cost of community college (including books, transportation, lab fees). If the targeted problem is closing the equity gap, then the “free” dollars should be last in not first out dollars in the financial aid packaging for post-secondary education. That’s how Tennessee is doing it. That will help keep programmatic costs down.

Related: Critics question Obama’s free community college idea

Second, there is a presumption that community colleges are a better destination than a four-year college for many low-income students, and the White House proposal in essence “steers” low-income students to community colleges because they are “free.” The data do not support that suggestion based on retention and graduation rates as well as the importance of “fit.” There are small non-selective non-elite destinations that would serve vulnerable students ably. If students enroll at schools where the fit is bad and do not progress, that is costly.

So, one has to ask why we are not thinking about making the first two years of higher education free at all public and private institutions that are Title III and V eligible; or, we could offer free tuition to all institutions with Pell eligible students in excess of 30 percent. That would eliminate the “elites,” and put money into the institutions with smaller endowments, greatest need and high percentages of vulnerable students.

Third, we know that many of the jobs of the future will require a minimum of a bachelors’ degree. We also know that progression from two-year colleges to four-year colleges is low in terms of percentages. Approximately 20 percent to 25 percent of community college student progress to four year colleges; this means many students never finish community college in the first instance, let alone transfer. Oops; there’s the catch.

Related: The unexpected reason some in higher ed fear free community college

The good news is that for students who actually do transfer, their success rates are comparable to those who start at four-year institutions. Improving transfer rates is not simple. It requires quality articulation agreements, easily transferable credits and changed IPEDS reporting for both the two and four year institutions for purposes of calculating retention and graduation rates.

Fourth, there is almost a complete failure to address the role and needs of the 22% of community colleges that are MSIs. Why does this matter? These institutions serve, as noted in a recent report released by the Penn Center on MSIs, the greatest proportion of certain subgroups of minority students, like Hispanic students, and yet these institutions are seriously under-resourced.

And, in a recent conversation with Professor Marybeth Gasman, she noted the potential negative impact of free community colleges on four year MSIs; the latter are tuition dependent four-year institutions that may lose students to community colleges (MSI and non-MSI), unless quality articulation agreements are developed and those takes time. An unintended consequence.

Related: How many already attend community college for free?

The president’s proposal of free community college is, at first blush, an appealing and tempting solution to what ails higher education with its limited access to those less privileged. But for me, the real story rests in the costs, catches and consequences.

Two aspects of costs trouble me: the monies generated from the Federal and State government could go to support students who do not need support, and there is little to insure that the monies are well spent. The catches include that going to community college, even if free, is not an assurance that one will progress to and graduate from a four year institution. If anything, the data point in the opposite direction. And, the consequences of the proposal on four year MSIs and four year colleges that are non-selective are real and potentially damaging, absent improved transfer arrangements. Even then, some students will do better in a smaller environment from the get-go. This proposal undermines the reality that fit matters.

Of course, it is easier to critique proposals than to offer solutions. Consider these two suggestions:

Related: Free community college and supporting boys and men of color

The earlier referenced report issued by the Penn Center for MSIs identifies the economic conditions of the communities where MSI community colleges are located; some are in wealthy communities with sizable businesses. Prompted by a conversation with Professor Gasman, we have to ask why these businesses are not in a position to assist these MSI community colleges in developing the skill sets the enrolled minority students need for employment. Could these businesses afford paid internships, staff time to create learning laboratories and shared teaching responsibilities? This has already begun in the Foothills- De Anza District.

Why not have wealthy local community members contribute to a community college foundation, as has been done at Norwalk Community College. The monies could be distributed to foster business partnerships with job potential, fund transportation needs to internships that are remote and provide scholarships that help their graduates pay for tuition, room and board at a four year colleges.

Next, it is worth considering the academic and psycho-social gap between high school graduation and college and career readiness. Might all or some of the free money be dedicated to narrowing this chasm for first generation, low income, minority students? Not ad hoc (even if excellent) programming. We need systemic approaches. We can wait and provide remediation within community colleges but that is expensive and frustrating. We would be wiser to provide well-planned interventions at key transition points throughout the educational pipeline. That would free up monies now dedicated to remedial efforts and length of time to graduation.

Related: How free community college lifts barriers to economic well being

There could be early mentoring programs – where college students work with middle and high school students. There could be summer programs that curb the proven and frustrating academic slippage that occurs among low-income students throughout K –12. There could be college-bound cohort development to improve the statistics in terms of students enrolling in college and persisting. There could be pre-school efforts to improve the verbal skills of low-income toddlers who fall behind even before they start.

Free community college alone will not improve our nation’s inequality gap. We need to focus on even tougher issues like poverty and powerlessness. Leveling the playing field for our most vulnerable populations, assuming that is a desired goal, will be a tough and lengthy row to hoe. But, there is nothing wrong and a lot right with at least making some progress by improving educational opportunity.

Increasing access to community colleges is one place to start and enabling more minority students to progress through the educational pipeline is good policy – for the students, for our workplace, for our nation.

Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College and a former Senior Policy Advisor, U.S. Department of Education.

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