By Dr. John Hall, Ed.D.
President Obama’s “free” community college proposal generated a lot of news this past week. Why? Free is a powerful word, especially when it is associated with something as expensive as higher education which has generated in excess of $1.3 trillion in debt—a number that, astonishingly, surpasses the nation’s credit card debt! Free is a striking concept since approximately 70 percent of U.S. college graduates leave school nearly $30,000 in debt. Free community college sounds transformational and much of the press coverage this past week has described this initiative as a real game-changer. Could the present structure of the President’s proposal, however, be detrimentally disruptive to higher education?
All this must be prefaced by stating that community colleges play a vital role in the higher education framework of the U.S. community colleges currently serve over 12 million students nationwide. These schools are on the front lines of providing affordable access to educational opportunity for millions of Americans. The significance of community colleges and the positive impact they have is hard to question. For example, 70 percent of nurses are trained by community colleges in the state of California. One of our clients, Horry Georgetown Technical College in South Carolina saw 92 percent of its students pass professional examinations and certification tests on their first attempt and had a 94 percent graduate placement rate! There are stories like this around the country.
Any initiative that has the potential of expanding access to higher education and making it more affordable is noteworthy. The stated goals of the President’s proposal are noble indeed. Nevertheless, if the result is to increase access to affordable education opportunities and yield positive outcomes for students, does this proposal create limitations? Further, what are the unintended consequences of this initiative? Is it good public policy to make a valuable financial benefit available to people but substantially restrict its ability to maximize opportunities for students the proposal seeks to help the most?
Reinforcing Low Expectations & Inequities
Recent research has demonstrated that, as a whole, the U.S. education system has significantly lower expectations for students of colors as well as those of low socio-economic status. One recent study found that (overall) K-12 teachers rated their African-American students as 47 percent less likely than their Caucasian-American counterparts to graduate from college. Additionally, research indicates that families of underrepresented students have significantly less access to information regarding attending college.
Research specific to higher education has also found that the highest-achieving underrepresented students attend a 4-year college at a rate of less than half of their higher socio-economic counterparts. It has also found that only 34 percent of high-achieving students who begin college careers at community colleges and transfer to 4-year schools actually graduate in possession of a bachelor’s degree within six years! That compares to an 86 percent graduation rate for those students who attend the most selective 4-year public institutions.
If this benefit is limited to community colleges, a natural concern is that these disparities will be unintentionally reinforced and encouraged. If the dollar-value remains consistent, whether at a community college or a 4-year university, why not make the benefit available across the board to truly expand equal access to opportunities? The benefit may not be as potent in proportion to the cost of a 4-year university program, however, most college students I know would tell you that $3,800 per year would be extremely helpful.
Community Colleges Have Real Capacity Constraints
Many community colleges have already been negatively impacted from an enrollment standpoint. This has been exacerbated by years of funding cuts in many states. On average, states cut funding to 2-year schools by 23% during the recent recession. Many states saw deeper cuts. South Carolina saw a nearly 40 percent drop and Arizona nearly a 55 percent drop. Can community colleges alone take on this burden when the initiative only applies to certain career-oriented programs that are typically high in-demand already and have such funding constraints? Why not allow students a range of choices? Private, not-for-profit schools, 4-year universities, occupational programs operated by local school districts, even some for-profit education providers can and should all play a role.
Expanded Federal Role In Education
While the federal government has played a role in higher education over the past half century, the role has largely been contained to helping students finance an educational program of their choice via federal grants and guaranteed student loans. Over the past eight years, the federal government has been playing a more dominant role in higher education by exerting influence over areas largely under the domain of accrediting agencies, state governments, and institutions themselves. The President’s proposal limits it subsidy of tuition to academic programs the federal government deems as career-oriented. Some will argue that this sets a dangerous precedent—placing the federal government in a position to influence academic programming and instruction versus the long-held concept of institutional autonomy. This is potentially a slippery slope and one worth consideration.
Is It Free?
Besides the projected $60 billion price tag of this initiative on the federal side, states will be expected to match this funding by spending at least $15 billion, not to mention investments in new academic programs, facilities, and capacity in order to comply with the aims of the proposal. Many states already highly subsidize their community college systems. For instance, in 2013-14, California per student funding for the community college system was $5,997 compared to student fees of $1,380. While this initiative could potentially compensate for some of that gap, state governments and schools themselves will need to find a way to subsidize increased demand.
A Positively Disruptive/Transformational Strategy
While helping students subsidize their education is an objective without fault, limiting student choice is a disservice! Since community colleges would be the only institutions able to provide this benefit, it would needlessly create rationing and capacity bottlenecks. Furthermore, it has the potential of reinforcing historic inequities. Last, but not least, federal intervention in determining academic program “winners” and “losers” seems inefficient and meddlesome. Based on the shifting paradigm in higher education, it is clear that the “consumers” of higher education—students and employers—can adequately dictate academic program demand while schools respond accordingly.
Reducing out-of-pocket costs for our college students is a great aim. Yet, it is equally important to incorporate elements for such an initiative that reduce economic cost, allow for more efficient delivery of instruction, and maximize outcomes by investing in student success coaching programs. By doing so, the federal government would optimize the effectiveness of this initiative as well as the nation’s return on investment. With the $60 billion being proposed for this initiative, the American people will expect to see impressive results.
Dr. John Hall is CEO of Greenwood Hall. He is a published author and inspirational speaker about Autism and the education of children with special needs. He serves on the Board of Trustees of Roosevelt University and continues to mentor college-ready high school students at the Roybal Education Center in downtown Los Angeles. Dr. Hall received a Doctorate in Education from the University of Southern California. He also received a B.A. in Political Science and an MBA from Pepperdine University.