The president's proposal: Our take

Early analysis of Obama's plan to make community college free for millions of students

David Bevevino

David Bevevino, Community College Executive Forum

President Obama's proposal to make the first two years of community college free for students "who are willing to work for it" has generated tremendous buzz in the higher education community over the past 24 hours.

EAB has followed the development of the Tennessee Promise and, more recently, the Chicago Star Scholarship. After several years of enrollment declines following the Great Recession, proposals like President Obama's have generated tremendous excitement as well as some concern about whether they can deliver on their promise.

A college navigation skills challenge

Proponents of these types of programs cite expanded access and affordability for all students. As most low-income students qualify for significant financial aid already, the financial benefits of "free" community college primarily reach middle- and upper-income students.

However, in the first year of the Tennessee Promise, nearly 90% of the 2013 graduating high school population signed up for the program, a remarkable participation rate. Many of these students would have gone straight into the workforce if the Tennessee Promise had not made them believe they could afford college. The primary benefit to low-income students comes in believing that they can afford and complete community college.

The challenge for community college leaders will be how to support these newcomers to higher education. Though many organizations have focused on the need for academic assistance, EAB's research reveals that the primary drivers of attrition come from outside of the classroom. Early reports indicate that the President's proposal may provide funding for non-tuition costs, though details on the program remain sparse.

Community college students, especially low-income students, work, have families, and are the first-generation at tremendous rates. All of these factors contribute to students' difficulty navigating the maze-like processes and policies colleges have put in place. As the proposal requires a 2.5 GPA (higher than the 2.0 required in Tennessee), a minimum of half-time status, and steady progress to degree, questions remain about how colleges can ensure low-income, first-generation, and other at-risk students receive the greatest benefit from the program.

Learn more about how the Student Success Collaborative for Community Colleges is helping students learn college navigation skills and complete their degrees

EAB's take on the issue is that institutions must invest in their non-academic support services. outside-of-class issues such as foregone wages, financial difficulties, family responsibliities, and lack of a college support network emerged as the primary drivers of student attrition, according to EAB's research. The White House Fact Sheet indicates that colleges must help students pay for books and transit costs, indicating that the policy intends to address the non-tuition financial challenges many students face.

In our 2014 publication, Turning high school partnerships into college enrollments, we provided recommendations on how community colleges can build college navigation skills by delivering financial aid, advising, and registration support in local high schools before students have graduated. In addition, our research demonstrates how innovative institutions have leveraged community resources such as parents and other mentors to build low-cost college support networks for students.

Tennessee requires students participating in the Tennessee Promise to receive mentoring from a community member. These mentors help students understand difficult administrative processes and stay on track to completion, but questions about scaling the mentoring program remain. EAB recommends that a key to success for the Tennessee Promise and the President's proposal will be a focus on supporting college navigation skills among students unfamiliar with the college environment.

Uncertain financial impact on colleges

The president's proposal also raises questions about the financial impact on colleges and students. These include:

  • Will this new initiative be a boon to community college bottom lines? How will it affect the current trend of public disinvestment in community colleges?
  • How will the proposal affect the way states and local districts set tuition and fees, as well as estimate the per student cost of education?
  • How will institutions be measured on graduation rates, career outcomes, and institutional reform implementation under the proposals requirements?
  • If more low-income, first-generation, and part-time students enroll, will the program acknowledge the completion challenges these populations carry and not penalize colleges trying to support them?

If the proposals increase enrollments, colleges will certainly see revenue bumps. Though members tell us they would welcome enrollment increases after several years of decline, significant upticks in student numbers may put pressure on student support capacity and physical plants at community colleges. States and local districts may be caught funding the new capital or staff investments needed to meet student demand. If they cannot meet the requirements for student support or career outcomes, community colleges may come under additional scrutiny.

Despite the excitement in the higher education community about such an ambitious proposal, the political situation in Washington means we will have significant time to wait before seeing the President's proposal become law—if it ever does. However, EAB will continue to provide guidance to members as they determine the potential student success and financial impact of these proposals.

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