Thoughts on President Obama’s “Free Community College” Proposal

(NOTE: Updated 1/9/15 11 AM ET with discussion of state performance-based funding and maintenance of effort requirements.)

Two weeks in advance of the State of the Union Address, President Obama unveiled a proposal for tuition-free community college that is getting a great deal of attention. The plan, which was influenced by a “Free Two-Year College Option” paper by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall, calls for the federal government to fund three-fourths of the cost of tuition and fees while states fund the remainder. The student is then responsible for covering other costs that go along with college attendance, such as books and living expenses.

This is an ambitious and complicated proposal that requires a fiscal outlay and Congressional approval. As a researcher at the intersection of financial aid and accountability policies, there are some things to like about the proposal, but there are also some significant concerns. Below, I list some of the pros and cons of the tuition-free community college proposal, as well as some potential items that can best be classified as “mixed” at this point:

Pros:

  • This sends a clear message that community college is an affordable option for all students. Even though tuition and fees make up a small portion of the total cost of attendance—and it is unclear if all students will see additional savings from this plan—telling students early on that tuition will be free may induce more to prepare for college and eventually enroll.
  • This could potentially encourage students to switch from expensive for-profit colleges to less-expensive community colleges for an associate’s degree. This would reduce their debt burden and maybe encourage them to pursue further education if desired.
  • This program will likely be targeted toward middle-income families who do not qualify for the Pell Grant, but cannot readily afford to pay several thousand dollars out of pocket each year for college. This group is key in building public support for higher education. (I don’t think it would affect the college choices of high-income families, who typically chose four-year institutions.)
  • Covering half-time students in addition to full-time students is a plus, although it remains to be seen whether half-time students would be eligible for additional years at a lower enrollment intensity.

Cons

  • The neediest students may not benefit as much from this plan as a straightforward increase to the Pell Grant, as some funds will go to students without financial need. At this point, it sounds like the proposal is NOT a last-dollar scholarship, meaning that all students will get at least some money. But while this is less efficient than increasing the Pell, the broad-based nature of the plan could gain additional political support.
  • If enough students switch from private to public colleges, the additional demand would force states and localities to undertake expensive capital building projects. This could also place additional strain on state financial aid programs.
  • The promise to cover three-fourths of tuition could encourage states and colleges to raise their tuition in order to qualify for more funds. Ideally, the legislation will have some sort of mechanism to prevent outright gaming, but community colleges in high-tuition states will effectively get more money than those in low-tuition states (often with a better history of state and local support). The state/federal/institutional interactions deserve careful scrutiny.
  • In order to qualify for the funds, states must allocate at least some appropriations based on performance instead of enrollment. This sounds like a good thing, but there are two problems. First, measuring performance is difficult–even with respect to graduation rates at community college. Second, as shown in research by Nick Hillman and David Tandberg, it is far from clear that performance-based funding policies improve student outcomes.

Mixed or unclear

  • Students must enroll half-time and earn at least a 2.5 GPA in order to qualify for free tuition. That is a step up from current rules for satisfactory academic progress for the Pell Grant, which typically requires a 2.0 GPA. It may help students be more serious about their studies, but it could also cut off struggling students who need additional support.
  • Requiring the state to fund the remaining cost of tuition could cut out the role of the local community college district. While some states have centralized funding structures for community colleges, others rely on local districts to fund their own college. Moving to a system of state-funded community colleges could help reduce massive funding inequities across districts, but it could reduce taxpayer support for higher education if they do not want their funds going elsewhere.
  • The plan calls for community colleges to work on transfer agreements with public four-year colleges and universities, which is a good thing. But I’d like to see the plan encourage collaboration with other regionally accredited institutions, including reputable private nonprofit and for-profit colleges.
  • The requirement that states maintain their effort for other sectors of higher education may induce some states to not participate. Additionally, if students shift from the four-year sector to two-year colleges, it’s not clear how “effort” should be defined.

We don’t know all of the details about the plan yet, but it is certain to generate a great deal of discussion in Washington and around the country. I’m looking forward to the conversation!

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on President Obama’s “Free Community College” Proposal”

  1. “The promise to cover three-fourths of tuition could encourage states and colleges to raise their tuition in order to qualify for more funds”
    In the legislation they would probably include supplement-not-supplant, maintenance of effort, or something similar; that is typically included in federal grant programs.

    “community colleges in high-tuition states will effectively get more money”
    Unfortunately that type of issue is seen with a lot of government grant programs and tax benefits.

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