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Community college students
Graphic by Jill Barshay. Data from NPSAS 2012 and the Community College Research Center

When President Barack Obama proposed making two years of community college free, during his State of the Union speech last month, it seemed like a way to give more Americans, especially those at the bottom of the economic ladder, a start at college or a technical degree that could lead to a good job. The White House estimated in its February budget that it would cost $6 billion a year — enough to pay the tuition and fees for about 1.8 million full-time community college students. 

But is this free-tuition proposal needed? And whom would it benefit? After all, the majority of the nation’s eight million community college students are from low-income families, who would seem to be eligible for existing federal and state grants that cover community college tuition. And even those who make too much money for those grants (or whose families make too much money) can generally get most of the tuition reimbursed from the federal government at tax time.

But when you drill down into the numbers, you find that only a little more than half of the low-income students are getting free rides right now. And the reasons the others don’t get aid would probably also be impediments to getting free tuition through the new Obama proposal.

Let’s walk through the numbers together.

The Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University estimates that two-thirds of community college students have a household income below $50,000 a year (that includes their parents’ income if they are dependents), and that half the students have a household income below $30,000.

These students would certainly qualify for federal Pell Grants, which give needy students up to $5,730 a year to cover not only tuition, but also fees and books. And they can use whatever is left over for living expenses. Average annual tuition and fees at community colleges across the nation are $3,347 for 2014-15, according to the College Board. Only in Vermont, where community college tuition and fees exceed $6,000 a year, would the Pell grant be insufficient to cover it. (There isn’t a strict income cap for Pell grants, but more than 90% of them go to families making under $50,000. The award level depends upon the number of people in the household.) 

According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics inside the U.S. Department of Education, about 30 percent of all community college students received enough federal grants to wipe out their tuition and fee bills in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. When you throw in state grants, too, the percentage of community college students who are paying no tuition or fees rises to 38 percent.

What about the remaining 62 percent? Almost half of them are believed to be poor enough to qualify for federal grants. 

So why aren’t they getting them?  

Too few students fill out the required financial aid form, for one thing. According to the Community College Research Center, only 60 percent of all community college students apply for federal aid. The form has more than 100 questions about family finances, and it can be time consuming to collect supporting documentation and verify, for example, how much money is in each person’s checking account in your household. Community colleges often don’t have enough counselors to help students, many of whom are the first generation in their families to attend college, with the form.

There are cultural reasons, too. Some students don’t want to apply for a government handout, on principle, even if they qualify for one. 

In some cases students who receive state grants don’t realize that they should also apply for a federal Pell grant. The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, calculated that community college students in California annually leave $500 million on the table because they don’t bother to apply for Pell grants that they would have qualified for.

Another big reason, cited by community college experts, is that the typical community college student isn’t a traditional college student who fits neatly into financial aid rules. Most community college students aren’t fresh out of high school. Most are working. Many are raising children at the same time, or supporting their parents. The majority are part-timers, 60 percent of all community college students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. They might take a couple classes one semester and then take two semesters off.

“I think many of them are working full time and taking a class or two on the side,” said Kent Phillippe, head of research at A.A.C.C. “A lot of them don’t think they’re eligible for aid.”

Technically, part-timers can get an annual Pell grant, pro-rated by the number of classes that they’re taking. But in practice, it is harder for a student taking only one class to obtain a grant. 

Another reason some low-income students aren’t getting free tuition is because they’ve already been in community college for too long. A January 2015 report by the William T. Grant Foundation, “The New Forgotten Half,” pointed out that too many community college students get stuck in remedial classes and eventually drop out. Almost half failed to get any credential even eight years after finishing high school. You can only get a federal Pell grant for six years, and then the money ends.

And then there are odd categories of community college students who don’t qualify for Pell grants, such as the eight percent who already have a bachelor’s degree and are taking community college classes for additional technical training or enrichment. Another chunk of students are actually high school students, taking community college courses as part of a dual-enrollment program. (Sometimes the high school foots the community college bill, but that wouldn’t be turning up in the grant data.)

Some students who pay tuition up front ultimately get it refunded from the federal government at tax time. Anyone making less than $80,000 a year (or $160,000 for a couple) can get an education tax credit of up to $2,500 on the tuition they pay. That’s roughly twice the cost of community college in California, for example. (In some cases, even needy students are claiming the tax credit and avoiding the paperwork of a federal grant.)

If the student earns too little to owe any taxes, they can still get a “refund” check from Uncle Sam of up to $1,000. Unfortunately, there’s no data that breaks out how much of this tax credit is used to pay for community college tuition, as the credit can be used for four-year college as well. But it’s reasonable to suspect that this credit reimburses thousands of community college students their full tuition.

It’s unclear if very many existing students, who aren’t getting free tuition now, would qualify for free community college tuition under the White House proposal. According to the White House budget document, you’d have to be at least a half-time student with a B average whose family makes less than $200,000 a year. And the tuition would be free only for two years. That suggests that students would still have to fill out onerous financial aid forms. And many part-timers would still be ineligible. (See this fact sheet.)

In my reporting, a number of advocates for the poor said that free community college tuition isn’t what’s needed. “The community college affordability problem is not about tuition and fees,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at the Institute for College Access and Success. “For students who cannot afford community college tuition, grants are available. But there’s hardly ever enough for textbooks, transportation and all the other living expenses.” And it’s those expenses that often cause students to drop out.

This article also appeared here.

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