When President Obama announced last week that he wanted to make community college free, many were instantly skeptical. Does free really mean free? If students aren’t paying, who is?
It’s true that the current proposal is incomplete. Obama’s initiative would use federal funds to cover a large portion of the “average” cost of attendance but generally leaves states to cover the rest, and it’s not clear exactly how this will be financed or whether it can even get through Congress. But yes, in theory, the government can make two-year community college tuition-free for all.
As Mike Konczal points out, compared to the employment and social benefits to be yielded from higher education investments in the long-term, the actual investment per pupil is feasible. The Obama administration estimates that if the program is fully implemented with state support, 9 million students would be subsidized with the equivalent of roughly $3,800 per year. The model for this initiative is a new free community college program in Tennessee that has drawn tens of thousands of applicants, disproportionately students of color.
There are conditions: programs would need to meet certain academic or job training criteria, while students would need to maintain a decent grade-point average. But the more significant fine print is the question of what other new costs will be introduced by this big down-payment on college.
Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin, one of the education scholars whose research influenced Obama’s plan, tells The Nation via e-mail that she anticipates that “total enrollment will increase and some of that will be from people…who otherwise wouldn’t go to college at all,” and completion rates should also rise. Great, but now the task is ensuring students are supported enough to stay on track.
Although community college is relatively the cheapest and most accessible rung in higher education, economic hardship currently poses a major barrier to college access and completion of programs. Yet tuition and fees are only a piece of the equation.