Teachers College, Columbia University

Statement From CCRC on President Obama's Plan for Free Community College

We commend President Obama’s continued focus on the central role community colleges play in providing educational opportunity for millions of Americans. His proposal for tuition-free community college sends a powerful message about college affordability to students and may hasten a national consensus on the economic necessity of schooling beyond high school.

While federal and state grants already cover community college tuition for low-income students in most states, too many students and families remain unaware of this fact and are deterred by fears of high tuition or the byzantine financial aid application process. Even when tuition is free for students, other expenses—such as food, books, and transportation—often present insurmountable hurdles. If grants are awarded to students on top of free tuition, as President Obama proposes, low-income students can use them to pay for these additional costs of attendance.

Unfortunately, cost is not the only obstacle to college success. While the plan recognizes this in principle—by limiting eligibility to programs that lead to good jobs or transfer—questions remain about how programs would be judged, and whether colleges will have the resources they need to improve. Here are four key issues to consider:

  • Broader reforms that help community college students complete high-quality programs are necessary to improve educational outcomes. The Tennessee and Chicago free tuition plans cited by President Obama, for example, are only one part of comprehensive reforms designed to boost student success by providing close monitoring of student progress, careful alignment of courses to transfer and job requirements, clearer and more coherent programs of study, and help for students to make better choices about what to study.
  • The president’s proposal invests in students, which is a good thing, but it does not invest in community colleges so they can implement reforms that help students succeed. The White House plan calls on colleges to use proven programs such as CUNY’s successful ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs). ASAP does increase graduation rates, but it is also more costly.
  • The plan requires states to spend more money per student, but this additional spending would not increase colleges’ revenue. According to the proposal, the federal government would pay three quarters of the average tuition ($3,800), and the states would be required to pay the remaining quarter. Thus, states would have to increase their investment in the colleges to maintain the same level of per-student payments to the colleges. Depending on how states respond to the policy, the requirement could result in fewer resources for the colleges.
  • The proposal states that only effective programs are eligible for the subsidy, which means the federal government would have to implement a system for judging quality. Its past efforts to develop performance-based regulations—gainful employment and a new college-rating system—demonstrate that this is not a simple undertaking. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Education already has an accreditation system to determine Title IV (Pell Grants and Stafford Loans) eligibility. Maintaining two accreditation systems for two types of federal financial aid is inefficient, and would create additional bureaucratic hurdles for both colleges and students.

Despite these obstacles, the president’s proposal opens the door to a broader discussion of a comprehensive strategy for community colleges that emphasizes both affordability and performance. The millions of students who seek brighter futures at community colleges need bold and transformative change, as well as renewed public investment, to ensure they have college options that are both affordable and of high quality.