President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community college free for all students sounded like a great way to extend free public education beyond high school, giving low-income students a path to college. Critics say the plan could further ghettoize lower income and black high school graduates and spends public money on students who can afford their tuition.
This debate raises important questions, and although the Republican Congress will likely block its implementation, the proposal has at least launched public conversation on the idea of free public higher education. While tuition-free community college would not provide everyone with access to quality education for good jobs or for continuing academic achievement, it moves us in the right direction.
The plan’s merits
In the 20th century, the universal high school movement increased the level of free public education in the United States and contributed hugely to the country’s economic growth. Expanding access to community college would offer American students a route to middle-class jobs, including vocational careers, and to middle-class incomes. Today more and more jobs require some kind of postsecondary education. A little more than a third of all jobs will require a bachelor’s degree, and almost another third will require some college or an associate’s degree by 2020. At least 59 percent of U.S. jobs already require postsecondary training.
Studies show that an associate’s degree, whether it is academic or vocational, can boost lifetime earnings. Even without a degree, some college training usually means higher earnings than a high school diploma. As seen a century ago with the expansion of free high school, only a better-educated workforce can meet the needs of tomorrow’s employers, boost economic growth and give U.S. companies a competitive edge.
Beyond access to colleges, Obama’s college promise plan emphasizes success in school and beyond. The plan would pay community colleges for academic programs that can transfer to four-year institutions and for vocational training programs with high graduation rates for jobs in high demand. The proposal includes a new American Technical Training Fund, designed to “expand innovative, high-quality technical training programs,” according to the White House. It is modeled on successful programs in Texas and Tennessee that have registered better than average completion and employment outcomes.
Because the new plan would eliminate tuition, students would be able to use Pell Grants, federal scholarship funds for low-income students, for nontuition expenses, including books, fees and living expenses. The proposal calls for increasing the number and amount of Pell Grants available to undergraduate students in all postsecondary institutions. That would make college more affordable and decrease the amount of student debt.
Free community college would make a bachelor’s degree more affordable. Students could get two years of college without piling up debt and end up with lower debt burdens postgraduation.
The proposal drew criticism from some higher education leaders. “We need higher aspirations than just community college,” University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said last month, commenting on a similar plan discussed by the state legislature. He said the plan could entice students to attend cheaper community colleges for their first two years rather than directly enroll in four-year universities, which he believes offer an overall better education. Critics have long argued that community colleges offer a second-rate, second-class education.
Though some four-year colleges may offer more-rigorous courses during the first two years than students will find in community colleges, that’s not true for all courses or for all four-year colleges. And four-year institutions are not for everyone. Some students need the slower on ramp to higher education that they can find in community colleges.
The pushback from four-year public and private colleges and universities and trade schools is understandable. They would not benefit from the free tuition plan and may lose students to community colleges. College competition for student tuition dollars is fierce. While the number of students who might choose to complete their first years at a community college is unpredictable, any loss would hurt. Enrolling students directly from high school offers the greatest access to federal student aid and loan dollars to pay tuition.
Others fear that free tuition would contribute to concentrating low-income students and students of color in a higher-education ghetto. Critics warn that many students would opt for vocational education instead of an educational track that leads to four-year degrees and end up with low-paying jobs. While this may be true, the same criticism of tracking applies to the K–12 education system. If anything, free access to community colleges offer students the flexibility to choose whether they want go into a job-training program or pursue a college degree.
The counterargument is that community colleges accept students who can’t gain admission at four-year institutions. In fact, nearly half of minority undergraduates attend community colleges. And nearly 40 percent of community college students come from poverty-level families. Students at two-year community colleges are more likely to be older, to have families and jobs and to enroll less than full time. One problem with some state proposals for free community college tuition is that they are geared toward new high school graduates and leave out older, returning students.
Critics also argue that Obama’s proposal would subsidize middle-class students who can afford to pay for tuition. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. First, getting more middle-income students into community colleges will diversify the student bodies. Economic and racial integration produces better education for all students. The increase in enrollments at community colleges of middle-class students, who are likely to transfer to four-year institutions, would increase pressure to improve the academic quality of education in the two-year programs. Improving academic offerings in community colleges would increase the chances of all students to transfer to and succeed in four-year institutions.
To be clear, free community college would not solve all the problems in American education and society. It would make a bachelor’s degree more affordable, by enabling students to get two years of college without piling up debt. But the plan would not erase class and race disparities any more than free high school education did in the 20th century. However, improving access to higher education for all is essential to equipping young people to compete in the changing national and international economies. As change becomes a constant for the 21st century workforce, the plan will also help older individuals retrain for new jobs.
The most powerful moral arguments for free tuition are based on principles of equal opportunity for all. However, the economic arguments of free tuition plans, based on the need for better-educated employees, should not be discounted.