Is Free Community College a Good Idea?

Perhaps you read a column in The Washington Post that was highly critical of the free community college proposals that many states are adopting and the federal government is considering. At the risk of gross oversimplification, this op-ed depicts two-year institutions as dropout factories that result, all too often, in significant loss of credits when students transfer.

That’s only one of many recent columns criticizing the free community college idea. There’s an opinion piece in Forbes entitled “Community College Students Need Better Options, Not Free Tuition” that claims that 46 percent of community college students drop out within five years without earning an associate’s degree or certificate.

Then there’s a more sophisticated piece in Hechinger Report titled “Economists find free community colleges can backfire,” which argues that increasing instructional spending at colleges will have a much bigger impact than eliminating tuition, and that eliminating tuition at four-year institutions for Pell Grant-eligible students will have a bigger impact on bachelor’s degree production than free community college.

Then, too, there’s a piece on Marketwatch that argues that other policies offer a bigger bang for the buck than free community college.

Hopefully, you also read Matt Reed’s incisive, cutting and witty rebuttal to the Post column in Inside Higher Ed.

I do hope, however, that those scholars who are most knowledgeable about community colleges will also respond.

Even if Jay Mathews’s argument is overly simplistic and lacking in nuance, it nonetheless raises issues that deserve a detailed scholarly response. After all, Mathews’s perspective is widely shared not only by many faculty members at four-year institutions, but most upper-middle-class parents.

Here is a series of questions that the controversy provokes.

  1. Community colleges have multiple missions — access, remediation, vocational and technical training, and transfer to a four-year institution. Do two-year institutions do an equally effective job in each mission — or do these multiple missions conflict, resulting in a “jack of all trades, master of none” result?
  2. Does attendance at a community college discourage a significant number of students fully capable of earning a bachelor’s from doing so?
  3. Community colleges rely even more heavily on part-time adjunct instructors than do four-year institutions. And these instructors have even less job security than most instructors at bachelor’s degree-granting schools. What difference does that make in teaching effectiveness, student learning outcomes and the feedback students receive?
  4. We know that peer effects on educational outcomes are extremely powerful. Given the diversity of community college students in terms of preparation, credits taken each semester, time spent on campus and available for study, and aspirations, is the average student equally well off starting at a two-year as opposed to a four-year institution?
  5. What do students lose by attending an institution with significantly fewer resources, both financial resources and enrichment activities and support services? Do community colleges’ relatively small class sizes make up for the difference in resources?
  6. Some liken the two-year/four-year divide to a form of educational apartheid. Is it likely that free community college worsen the underplacement of Black, Latinx and low-income students relative to their academic potential?
  7. Will increased funding for community colleges result in mission creep (for example, encouraging these schools to offer more applied bachelor’s degrees), which will weaken two-year institutions commitment to their other responsibilities?

Of course, the biggest weakness in Mathews’s argument, in my view, is the unwillingness or inability of most bachelor’s degree-granting institutions to enroll and effectively serve many of the students who currently start out at a community college. The fact is that many of the institutions that I am familiar with have no interest in part-time students, veterans, working adults and family caregivers and are not set up to meet their needs.

That said, I am impressed by the number of community college transfer students who successfully graduate from a four-year institution despite the many obstacles that they confront. These include:

  • The lack of alignment between courses at the two- and four-year institutions.
  • The failure to coordinate advising between four-year and feeder schools.
  • Four-year institutions’ unwillingness to apply too many transfer credits to gen ed and major requirements.
  • Delays in credit transfer evaluation that results, all too often, in closed-out courses.
  • Financial aid policies that favor first-time, full-time students and that discriminate against transfer students.

These students’ success is a testament to their remarkable gumption. Their tenacity, determination and doggedness are extraordinary, and these students deserve far more respect than they typically receive.

I’d argue that the biggest danger posed by many of the free community college proposals is their failure to augment these institutions’ resources. We now have many examples of approaches that can boost success among our most vulnerable students:

  • Corequisite remediation, which enrolls students directly into for-credit courses while providing them with supplemental academic support.
  • Guided pathways, which provide students with clearly structured, educationally coherent pathways to credentials with strong labor-market value.
  • Intensive one-on-one advising and career counseling coupled with technology tools to assist in course selection and the targeting of support services.
  • Incentivizing full-time enrollment.
  • Wraparound supports designed to meet all of a student’s needs, including access to childcare, transportation allowances and emergency grants.

But implementing these evidence-based initiatives requires additional resources. This would be money well spent, but it’s not, unfortunately, as politically attractive as the word “free.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Inside Higher Ed