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President Obama’s proposal last week to offer free tuition at community colleges is recognition that unless the country provides education and training to its adult population, economic competitiveness internationally and societal economic well-being in the United States cannot be assured.

John S. Levin

The President’s announcement has drawn attention to barriers of access to postsecondary education for low income students. While tuition is not the main economic hardship for millions of students and would-be students at community colleges, the steady rise over decades in the “sticker-price” of attendance has served as a barrier to educational and training participation.

The promise of reduced or no tuition costs for students is a good sign as long as it is not accompanied by decreases in federal and state grants to community colleges and their students. As well, as long as the promise is not given to special groups of students — recent high school graduates, full-time students, and those in credit programs only — then there will be a condition of fairness. The promise needs to apply to all students in all states.

Related: President weighs in with plan for free community college

Clearly students who attend community colleges or intend to attend are the least economically well off in postsecondary education. My research shows there are millions of students in community colleges, in credit and noncredit programs, who are at-risk of leaving college because of financial hardships. These include large numbers of adult students, of whom a large proportion are single mothers.  Sixty percent of community college students enroll on a part-time basis. Five million, or 39 percent, of all community college students are enrolled in non-credit courses, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. And 71 percent of students are 22 years of age or older, with 28 as the average age.

These are not “traditional” college and university students. Eighty percent of community college students work, and the large majority work 20 hours or more a week, with 41 percent who work full-time. Work is a financial necessity for these students. Students who work more than 30 hours a week have less than a 50 percent chance of continuing their studies past a year, whether they attend full-time or part-time. With time devoted to work, and added family responsibilities most of these students face,  the time for academic studies and training is limited.

“When community colleges are free, then barriers to not only educational access but also to employment and economic well-being are removed.”

Free tuition for all has the potential to alter not only postsecondary education participation rates but also postsecondary education program completion rates.  President Obama has said the first two years of community college will be free, but for those who are part-time students, that is only a fraction of the time they need to attend college. As long as students are progressing in programs and courses, free tuition must extend beyond two years for community college courses and programs.

Related: It takes a community: Obama’s free college plan will need a broad coalition to become a reality

When President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education concluded in 1947, the name “community college” was set into public policy, and with it the view of the commission that community colleges should be tuition-free. At that time, youth and young adults were almost the sole community or junior college participants. In 2015, adults predominate as community college students, and their needs are surely education and training, and ultimately living wage employment.

The tuition-free policy has the potential to alter the community colleges program, as student needs will shape curriculum.This may mean a more robust occupational and technical curriculum. It may also contribute to increased programming in basic skills.

Although the tuition-free policy may cause concern about the overall costs to the federal and state governments, there are considerable government savings and earnings that will accompany the policy. For example, tuition-free community college will lessen the need for some financial aid; tuition-free community college and increases in students’ level of education will lead to higher paying employment and thus higher income tax revenues for governments. Above all, the nation cannot afford to have any adult untrained or uneducated.

While President Truman’s commission of 1947 was urging equal access for all, “without regard to race, creed, sex or national origin,” the tuition-free policy of 2015 adds another characteristic — economic status — to be removed as a barrier to access. When community colleges are free, then barriers to not only educational access but also to employment and economic well-being are removed.

John S. Levin is a professor of higher education at the University of California, Riverside, where he is also the director of the California Community College Collaborative. He has studied community colleges for more than 25 years.

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