Should two years of community college be made available for free to nine million students? The pros and cons of the idea need to be discussed, write Josh Wyner and Scott Stimpfel in this opinion piece.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama outlined America’s Education Promise, a proposal that would make community college free for some nine million students, assuming that all states participate. He unveiled the idea a couple of weeks earlier, explaining that it required an estimated federal investment of $60 billion over 10 years. Some educators, such as University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, have supported President Obama’s focus on college education. Still, we believe this idea ought to be debated broadly, not just among politicians and higher education policymakers. But before we share our views, you should know where we are coming from. 

Our perspectives on the community college sector have been shaped through very different experiences, but our interests have aligned around one common goal: success for community college students. One of us (Josh) has spent the past two decades working to improve and equalize educational outcomes for underserved students; he today oversees the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence and Aspen’s New College Leadership Program, which aim to improve the ability of community colleges and their presidents to achieve strong student outcomes. In contrast, Scott began his academic career at Pasadena City College (PCC), where he received generous scholarship assistance and financial aid. PCC provided him with a pathway to earn a baccalaureate degree from the University of Southern California, after which he went on to obtain MBA and Ed.D. degrees. Each year, community colleges provide millions of students with the opportunity to achieve the American Dream; Scott has experienced this in his own life.

Here are some questions and facts to consider:

Do we really need more Americans with a college education? According to a report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2020, it is projected that nearly two-thirds of job openings for workers will require some college or better. Research from the Center also shows a sizable and growing gap between the number of college-educated Americans and the demand for college-level skills in the labor market. While there is some debate among experts as to the size of the gap — with a few even questioning whether it exists — there is no doubt that other countries are ramping up their post-secondary investments to increase skills and drive economic competitiveness. Why? The reason is that for at least a century there has been a very strong correlation between countries’ economic strength and the level of education of their citizens. In addition to bridging the workforce divide, research has also shown that getting a post-secondary degree can lead to a wide range of benefits, from improved health outcomes to enhanced civic engagement to increased volunteering, for both society and individuals.

“Each year, community colleges provide millions of students with the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.”

Are community colleges the right places to invest? Community colleges provide the only viable option for many students who aspire to enhance their socio-economic status. Today, community colleges enroll more than seven million students seeking a college credential — more than 40% of all undergraduates — including disproportionate numbers of students of color and first-generation college students, the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. Accounting for most of the growth in college enrollment over the last decade, the central role of community colleges in U.S. higher education delivery is unlikely to wane anytime soon, regardless of the President’s proposal. Despite their escalating importance, community colleges receive a much smaller allocation of public resources than other sectors of public higher education.

With average tuition already below $4,000 a year, how much will making community colleges “free” matter? Anyone who has recently paid a college bill knows that tuition is only part of the cost. For community college students, books, assorted fees, transportation, and housing constitute the majority of costs. So, even though federal aid, such as Pell Grants, cover community college tuition for hundreds of thousands of low-income students, many still struggle to make ends meet. More than 75% of full-time and part-time students work while attending community college. With research showing that working 20 or more hours a week hurts a student’s chances to graduate, freeing up dollars previously spent on tuition could allow community college students to work fewer job hours and increase their chances of obtaining a degree or certificate. 

“Even though federal aid, such as Pell Grants, cover community college tuition for hundreds of thousands of low-income students, many still struggle to make ends meet.”

Won’t making community college free attract students unprepared to do the academic work? There are three groups of students that could be attracted to community college if tuition is eliminated: Students who would not have gone to college otherwise, those who might have gone to a four-year college, and those who otherwise would attend a for-profit college. It is hard to predict how many would come from each group, but it is not a foregone conclusion that they would be less academically prepared than other community college students. To be clear, many community college students – an estimated 60% of those newly enrolled – do not pass tests typically used to assess placement in college-level courses and thus have to enroll in remedial level courses. Because graduation rates for these students are low, efforts to improve delivery of developmental courses has been at the center of a recent national movement to help more community college students graduate. 

Can community colleges — and their states — handle the influx of students that will result from eliminating tuition? In some states, including several in the Midwest, community colleges have the capacity to absorb more students. In others, such as California, capacity is stretched and up-front planning and investments will be needed to absorb substantially more students. For example, with an average student-to-counselor ratio of 1,000:1 in some states, overstretched community college academic advising centers that provide critical student support services will most likely need added investments to meet increased enrollments. It will not be easy for states to find the funds to first pay the 25% of tuition costs required in the President’s proposal as a match for the federal 75% investment and, second, pay for the increased capacity needed at the community college level. 

Are community college student outcomes high enough to warrant further investment in these institutions? There is no question: Community college student outcomes must improve. Less than 30% of entering community college students complete their programs within three years and some 15% transfer to a four-year college and earn a baccalaureate degree within six years. Wages for graduates of some community college programs are not very strong. Data also suggest the need to increase alignment between community college programs and industry needs in certain fields. The good news: There is plenty of evidence from around the country — including among the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence winners — that dramatically better outcomes can be achieved. 

Does the President’s proposal address the need for better community college outcomes? President Obama’s proposal includes requirements that states ensure alignment of community college programs with high-demand jobs or baccalaureate degree programs. While that is a good start, the proposal could be strengthened if it mandated clearer student success goals, decided in partnership with pertinent stakeholders. 

Some community colleges, given students’ academic aspirations or economic needs, may set more aggressive targets for bachelor’s degree attainment, while others might tie their goals to high-demand jobs. Still, in order for these goals to be achieved the pathways for community college students to enter and complete credentials tied to either high-demand jobs or baccalaureate degree programs will need to become more streamlined and transparent. Community colleges, industries and four-year colleges will need to work together to ensure that high quality pathways are developed and that students are supported from enrollment to completion. Regardless, requiring specific goals seems more likely to result in better student outcomes. 

“The proposal could be strengthened if it mandated clearer student success goals, decided in partnership with pertinent stakeholders.”

Why not target federal funds more specifically to low-income students? This proposal is not just about dividing the population socioeconomically and deciding who will receive an affordable college education, but setting the presumptions that everyone should have the opportunity to go to college. Today, we don’t question the value of universal, “free” high school in the U.S., even though some families could pay for public high school. Why? Because we see value in ensuring that every child in the U.S. receives an education through 12th grade. Given the growing demand for a college-educated workforce, it may make sense to consider shifting that presumption from high school to the first two years of college. 

As debate over the President’s proposal heats up, so too will questions about how to finance the plan at the federal and state levels, as well as how to balance state control over higher education with the federal interest in ensuring a strong return on taxpayer investment. But debating these issues should not obscure the urgent challenge: How to ensure that American workers have the skills required to compete — and lead — in a global, knowledge based economy. Making community college free may (or may not) be a politically feasible way to get there. But, we need bold ideas and the President’s proposal helps shift the conversation in the right direction.  

About the co-authors:

Joshua Wyner is founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and author of the 2014 book, What Excellent Community Colleges Do: Preparing All Students for Success. Scott Stimpfel is an assistant dean and adjunct faculty member at New York University and his research interests include community colleges. He co-founded Resources for Educational and Employment Opportunities, a non-profit organization that is committed to empowering underserved community college students.