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Free community college? A few words of caution

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President Biden’s American Family Plan includes a call for universal free community college, a proposal that had also been embraced by President Obama.

Free community college will no doubt be popular with voters, who like receiving financial benefits and don’t worry too much these days about broader program effectiveness or the public debt. And, since those who attend community colleges are disproportionately people of color and those from poorer families and communities, this plan would no doubt help many disadvantaged students.

Still, I have concerns. Community college allows students to pursue either academic degrees or workforce training. Students can obtain associate degrees and then transfer to four-year institutions, or they can simply attain the first degree. They can also get degrees or certificates in high-demand fields like health care or advanced manufacturing that can raise their earnings substantially.

But community colleges also have mixed track records of success. Degree completion rates there are under 40 percent; and most students who plan to transfer and obtain BAs do not successfully do so. While some degrees and credentials obtained at community colleges are valued in the job market, others do not — such as associate degrees in the liberal arts or certificates in low-wage fields (like cosmetology). Students can wander aimlessly for years without making much progress, especially if they must work full time or are not well-prepared academically.

And the disadvantaged students at community colleges have great need for supports and services — like academic or career guidance, mentoring, tutoring and help with child care — which the institutions often cannot afford to provide. Indeed, the problems at community colleges lie less with what the colleges do and more with the many roles we expect them to play — and with very limited resources to do so.

If we expend more resources on community colleges, how should we do so? Most research evidence suggests that spending new dollars on teaching capacity or supports and services is more effective at raising degree attainment than simply reducing or eliminating tuition; doubling the value of Pell grants would also be better targeted to those who most need the support.

And I worry about two problems specifically with free community college. First, by paying for the first two years only at community colleges but not four-year schools, many students who would have gone straight to four-year colleges will now start at community colleges and plan to transfer. But this is often more difficult than students imagine — not all of their courses will count towards bachelor’s degrees, and the transfer process itself can be challenging. Without more guidance and assistance, their completion rates will be lower now than they would have otherwise been.

Second, where teaching capacity and support services at community colleges are already limited, a large influx of new students would further strain such capacity. Indeed, middle-class students pouring into classes, whether in liberal arts or health care, might well squeeze out more disadvantaged students, who now face more difficulty getting the specific classes or supports they need to complete a program of study.

At the same time, Congress and the administration could potentially address these concerns while making community college free. First, I would make it free only to those from families with lower-to-middle incomes — which I would cap at $50,000 and certainly no more than $75,000. Such a cap would limit the incentives of individuals who would otherwise attend four-year institutions to now start at community colleges. And it would free up resources to spend in a more targeted fashion, like expanding Pell grants.

Second, I would make sure that some resources are directed towards expanding teaching capacity — especially for fields like nursing where it is already limited. Providing more funding for support services and student guidance is critical as well.

Third, Congress and the administration must pay special attention to workforce training at community colleges, in certificate programs that are sometimes for credit and sometimes not. Would “free community college” cover all such programs? How can we best provide the skills that employers seek and reward, especially in high-demand sectors, and what other student supports are necessary? What technical assistance do the colleges need, and how can we ensure that they partner with workforce agencies and employer groups?

The Biden administration has proposed $100 billion for eight years to fund workforce development in the infrastructure bill, separate from the proposal for free community college. Coordinating these two proposals, and making sure that the full range of student, worker and employer needs are met, would be the best way to ensure that we achieve the successful outcomes we all want.

Harry J. Holzer is LaFarge Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University and a nonresident senior fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings.

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