Free tuition may not be enough to improve access to degrees

When money is no object, the challenge becomes completion

The Obama administration's plan to make all community colleges free to students fails to address a major existing problem plaguing the system: completion rates, reports The Atlantic's Janell Ross.

Background: Obama proposes free tuition for community colleges

Just 20% of students who began community college in 2009 finished their programs by 2012, according to federal data. And only 15% of students who begin at community college end up receiving their bachelor's degree within six years.

In comparison, a 2009 study found students with similar GPAs and test scores at four-year institutions were 36% more likely to complete their degree.

"In other words, the system on which the Obama plan is built already struggles to produce strong student outcomes," writes Ross.

Background on the plan

Last week, President Barack Obama announced plans to make community college free for about nine  million students. Early details suggest the federal government would cover 75% of the cost of tuition for two years, approximately $3,800 per student on average. The remaining 25% would be covered by states that choose to participate.

Related: Obama's preview of free community college plan draws praise and concern

To be eligible, students will have to maintain a 2.5 GPA, make progress toward a credential, and carry at least half-time course loads. For schools to be eligible, they must award credits which can be applied to a four-year degree or provide credentials that lead to work in high-demand fields.

Student-facing challenges

Community colleges provide education to approximately half of U.S. college students, according to a 2011 College Board trends report.

But few students at two-year institutions are able to earn enough credits to transfer to a four-year school and earn their bachelor's degree. Remedial courses eat up time and money, while external factors such as work schedules, child care, and cost make it difficult to enroll full-time.

Half of students beginning community college must take remedial courses, compared with just 20% of those at four-year schools. And regardless of college type, the longer it takes a student to complete their program, the lower their chances of ever doing so.

Additionally, students still face 12-semester Pell Grant limits, despite selective, four-year institutions offering two to five times the advising and counseling services of a community-college, according to a 2013 Georgetown University study.

Industry experts react

Many low-income students already have pathways to free community college, says Thomas Bailey, director of Columbia University's Community College Research Center.

"This plan, at least as it stands, it does nothing about all the other issues, the child care and bus fare, the work hours, the real issues people face as they try to go to school, and too often, have to start and stop," says Bailey.

Our take on the proposal? Institutions must invest in non-academic support services

If Obama's plan moves forward, Bailey argues these students should be able to use Pell Grants for costs—some as basic as food—that come between them and education.

The most important work requires improving graduation rates, says Stan Jones, president of Complete College America and a supporter of the free tuition idea.

However, he says the plan could go further by upping the full-time enrollment standard from 12 credits—a three-year graduation route—to 15. Reinstating summer Pell grants would also help more students graduate on time, he says.

Increasing full-time credit requirements "seems to shift the student's focus," says Toby Park, who studies community colleges at Florida State University. "Somehow, we need to get more students to take more classes, to focus primarily on school. Really, tuition is only a small part of the problem" (Ross, The Atlantic, 1/12). 

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