Free Tuition to Community Colleges: Let’s Talk

SC Test Prep

The President has made what could be a revolutionary proposal in American higher education: two free years of community college to anyone who meets the academic and progress-related requirements. This announcement was predictably greeted with a variety of responses, with everyone from other politicians, experienced educators, noted national columnists, and even Tom Hanks weighing in with their opinion.

Arguments Against:

For those who oppose the proposal, most of their disagreement comes down to cost, which at the federal level is estimated to be $60 billion in new spending over the first 10 years of the program. Moreover, this is only the US government’s commitment, 75% of the bill. The remaining 25% would be left to the states where there would likely be significant differences in the cost per student.[1] Here in South Carolina, the additional increase in cost at the state level is predicted to be significant.

Added to these concerns is the relatively low rate of student success (according to traditional measures like graduation rates) pursuing higher education through the community college model. On average, only 31% of those entering into a two-year program will graduate within three years[2] with approximately the same percentage earning a bachelor’s degree within eight years of finishing high school. There are other issues such as the trickle-up effect on enrollment and tuition at four-year institutions, but, in essence, the argument against is that the proposal would carry a high cost with little guarantee of improving access to higher education.

Arguments For:

Roughly 1 in 3 community college students come from families with annual incomes below $20,000 which, depending on family composition, is close to or below the federal poverty level established by the Department of Health and Human Services. At the same time, while tuition averages only about $3,300 a year at two-year schools, that accounts for only about one-fifth of the total costs of attending, which also includes housing, food, books, transportation, and possibly other expenses like child care. Given that the Federal Pell Grant (explicitly designed to provide access to higher education for those with financial need), only provides $5,370 per year at maximum, one can see how an additional $3,300 would be invaluable to many students.

My thoughts:

Based on both experience and research, it is my belief that many of the ills associated with community college and brought up in this debate, like low graduation and retention rates and an increase in debt with no corresponding increase in professional opportunity, are in many ways symptomatic rather than foundational issues. For instance, are the low graduation rates of community college students somehow indicative of a fundamental trait of those students, reflecting either a lack of ability or desire? Instead, might they be the result of the multitude of factors that make education far more difficult for the average two-year student compared to their four-year peers such as their typical socio-economic status mentioned above which requires that many community college students either go to school and work full-time, or work full-time and take a part-time course load.

One can also point to other factors, such as the high percentage of two-year students who are first-generation college students who often lack the personal resources to help them succeed. Combined with the stereotypical view of community colleges as options of last resort and the corresponding lack of institutional resources they receive and can pass on to their students, my conviction is that there is more at work in the low success rates of two-year students than a simple lack of will.

With that said, my hope is that President Obama’s proposal becomes more than the start of another argument about politics and education. Instead, given the increasing professional need for higher education, rising tuition costs, and the number of underemployed four-year graduates, I hope it becomes the start of a conversation about the important role of two-year colleges and how we as a community can better support all they offer to our students. Particularly in our own county, where both Spartanburg Community College and Spartanburg Methodist College are excellent opportunities for so many and are filled with caring, committed administrators, faculty, and staff.

This post is my attempt to be a part of that conversation. Who will join me?