‘Free’ community college for all?

by Grace

The Obama administration thinks taxpayers should fund “free” community college for everyone.

President Barack Obama on Thursday proposed offering free community college nationwide, in effect extending government-funded education from kindergarten through a two-year degree.

Federal costs are estimated to be about $6 billion per year, with states picking up some of the tab.

Federal funds for the plan would go only to community-college programs the White House deems effective as determined by whether most students graduate and find employment or transfer to four-year schools. Students also would be required to attend at least half time, maintain a 2.5 grade-point average and “make steady progress” to remain eligible.

It would be for anyone, of any age, and of any income level.  Politically speaking, spreading benefits across the entire population improves chances of widespread support.

Community college, in effect, would be universal the way high school is. This approach could make the program more popular, as Social Security and Medicare have strong political constituencies in part because all elderly Americans receive them.

According to the pundits I’ve read, this proposal is going nowhere.  Besides the fact that there is no appetite to spend this kind of money on a new program, there is a basic question of how effective this proposal would be in improving student outcomes.

Will “Free tuition” automatically improve community colleges’ often dismal rates of student success?

Federal data show that at two-year colleges, 31 percent of first-time, full-time students graduate within three years. The implicit assumption of free-tuition plans is that the main reason students don’t finish community college is the cost of tuition. Not, say, the fact that somewhere around 50-60 percent of community college students are not college-ready, or that many community colleges are not designed with student success in mind.

Color me skeptical that a federally-funded free option will solve all of these problems. To be clear: research shows that tuition prices and grant aid do influence enrollment rates, and we’re learning more about how they influence student success.

But the notion that making college free will mechanically improve student outcomes is naïve. Take community colleges in California, where students pay the lowest published tuition in the nation ($1,429 this year). Attendance is essentially free to many students who qualify for Pell Grants. In a 2012 analysis, I found that retention and completion rates across California’s community colleges were above the national average. But completion rates were even higher at two-year colleges in Wisconsin and North Dakota, where tuition is two to three times as high and Pell Grant recipients make up a larger percentage of enrollments than in California.

A free option would almost certainly boost enrollment rates. But these cross-state outcomes do suggest that pushing tuition to zero may not be a silver-bullet solution to lackluster student success.

Approximately one-half of all community college students take remedial courses.

… Even if students pass such remedial classes, research shows they’re less likely to graduate than their peers who start directly in college-level classes.

Instead of paying for remedial classes that won’t improve the odds of graduating from college, maybe it would be better to focus more effective efforts on finding ways to produce more high school graduates who are college and career ready.


Douglas Belkin, Byron Tau, & Colleen McCain Nelson, “Obama Calls for Two Years of Free Community College for All Students”, Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2015.

Perry Bacon Jr., “Inside Obama’s Proposal to Make Community College Free and Universal”, NBC News, January 9, 2015.

Andrew P. Kelly, “Four reasons to be skeptical about Obama’s free community college proposal”, Forbes, January 9, 2015.

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