About a month ago, President Obama introduced a proposal to make two years of community college education free to students who maintained at least half-time status, a 2.5 GPA and made “steady progress” toward completing a degree. Under the plan, which was included in the White House’s proposed budget, the federal government would cover three-quarters of the average cost of a community college tuition, relying on participating states to cover the other one-quarter. About half of all students attending college in the United States are at community colleges. According to the White House, if all 50 states participate, the new program would benefit about nine million people nationwide and would save each student an annual average of $3,800.
Federal involvement in higher education is far from new. The federal government currently accounts for about 16 percent of college’s total revenue, compared to the 30 percent obtained through tuition. Pell grants, which never have to be repaid, already go to a large number of low-income students, most of whom attend community colleges. Equally as obvious is the President’s motivation. According to White House data, about 35 percent of all job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree by 2020. In addition to meeting this demand for highly educated employees, the proposal seeks to assist low-income Americans, predominantly minorities, who have been educationally disadvantaged since grade school. This gap in education correlates to a growing gap in employment opportunity and average income.
The proposal’s noble aims, however, do not compensate for several glaring holes in its strategy. Firstly, no concrete answer exists as to where the program’s estimated cost of $60 billion over 10 years will come from. Assuming the federal government can meet their end, a substantial burden will fall to participating states. Budget cuts to higher education have already strained resources to community and four-year institutions all across the country. Community colleges, in particular, are relying more and more on adjunct professors to fill spots in their shrinking faculty. This creates a precarious situation for both students, who miss out on the benefits of a tenured professor, and for adjuncts themselves, who experience terrible job security. Adjuncts earn about $2,000 to $3,000 for every course they teach, usually have no office space or resources to work with students outside of class time, and receive none of the benefits of tenured professors. If tuition were made free for two years for each student, community colleges would have even less funding to make necessary improvements. The increased enrollment in community colleges and decreased cost that would follow President Obama’s proposal would put further strain on the states and their financially frail community colleges.
The second question this proposal raises is whether community colleges, as they currently function, actually work. Substantial evidence indicates that community colleges are falling drastically short of their goal of providing quicker, cheaper degrees that increase students’ ability to get a job. Current federal research shows that only 20 percent of community college students who began classes in 2009 had completed their program in 2012. In other words, 80 percent of community college students took three years or longer to complete a two-year degree, if they completed it at all. A dismal 15 percent of students who start community college earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. This low success rate can be attributed to many causes. Supporters of President Obama’s plan would likely argue that the cost of attending school is the primary barrier to graduating on time, and thus lowering or eliminating tuition is the obvious solution. I would suggest, however, that tuition is not to blame. Rather, slow completion or lack of completion of community college degrees is driven by two things; ancillary costs of education, meaning all the extra costs incurred by books, transportation, etc., and a part-time mentality that works against quick completion of a degree. These two powerful factors are less tangible to institutions like the federal government, and thus are too often left out of the education equation.
Millions of students already take advantage of federal financial aid, but there is no guarantee that this helps them finish their program. Take California as an example. California has one of the lowest average community college tuitions in the country. Like many states, they provide tuition waivers to students with the lowest income. They also have one of the highest rates of application for federal assistance. Yet a community college student in California is no more likely to complete their degree on time than a student anywhere else in the country. Their tuition has been drastically reduced or eliminated but they are still not graduating on time with the skills they need to get a competitive job. Why is this? My previous assertion that ancillary costs and a discouraging culture prevent community colleges from achieving their goals can be summarized in looking at one thing; part-time enrollment.
Of the 7.7 million Americans who attend community college for credit, 4.6 million attend part-time. Incidentally, California has one of the highest rates of part-time enrollment. The longer a student takes to complete the required program, the less likely they are to graduate. This has been shown time and time again, at every level of education. The majority of community college students attend part-time, therefore the majority of community college students are decreasing their chances of graduating. Why? Ancillary costs and culture. The costliest part of being a community college student is not tuition. It is transportation to and from classes, childcare for the hours when you are in class, the ridiculously high cost of books that are rarely covered by waiver, and the investment of time it takes to pay the bills while meeting the demands of school. All of these factors combine to make part-time enrollment preferable for most students, despite the fact that it is by far the less successful path. The mindset that perpetuates part-time enrollment is harder to pinpoint. Researchers like Thomas Bailey from Columbia University and Toby Park of Florida State University have described the psychological differences between a worker who attends school on the side and a student who works on the side. Although it remains a somewhat intangible hypothesis, few would disagree that the latter is more likely to succeed in his or her program than the former.
These issues need to be addressed before President Obama’s proposal can have a chance of succeeding. The federal spending of $60 billion over 10 years should not be put toward tuition, which most community college students can already afford through Pell grants and state initiatives, but toward grants that assist with childcare, transportation, books, and other costs which make education so costly for so many Americans. The plan should also include a revision which raises the federal standard of full-time enrollment from 12 credit hours a semester to 15. This would incentivize bigger course-loads and fewer hours working. Hopefully, with the financial assistance provided by the federal government, more students would be able to afford to be students first and employees second, resulting in a faster completion of their degree.
Obviously, there are deeper roots to the issue of education disparity and the widening income gap that cannot be solved in one fiscal year. Race is still very much a dimension to the community college problem. The majority of African American, Hispanic, and first-generation students of all races begin their education in community colleges. About 50 percent of all students beginning community college place into remedial education courses, which do not count as credits toward a degree. At four year institutions, the number is only 20 percent. Thus, minority students who are the most likely to have received a sub-par high school education spend the most time on classes which do not count toward their degree. These disadvantaged students consequently take longer to complete requirements and are less likely to earn their degree. While President Obama’s proposal needs many adjustments before it can be viable, it is valuable as a conversation starter in regards to these fundamental flaws in our education system.