Opinion | Education

Free community college requires new paths to four-year institutions

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Jill Biden - the first presidential spouse in U.S. history to hold a doctorate and a job outside the White House - has made it clear that free community college is a policy priority for the Biden administration. 

Community colleges serve over 40 percent of undergraduates in our country, many of them minorities and first-generation college students. Eighty percent of students who enroll in community colleges hope to go on to earn a bachelor's degree at a four-year institution. Yet fewer than one in six achieve that goal within six years. Worse, students who plan to earn the baccalaureate are less likely to do so if they begin at a community college. This problem is due in large part to bureaucratic and financial obstacles that block students from transferring in pursuit of a bachelor's degree. 

America's College Promise, introduced in 2015, is the inspiration for policies favored by the Biden administration that would encourage even more students to start their postsecondary education in a community college. 

While making higher education more accessible is a laudable aim, this approach may come with unintended regressive consequences. If pathways leading from 2-year to 4-year institutions continue to be blocked, the result will be a diminished likelihood of baccalaureate completion for first-generation students and students of color - the very students who rely on community colleges as their path to the American dream.

While improving access to community colleges is important, the federal government must also help students who hope to go on to earn a bachelor's degree. Such students currently face significant hurdles related to transferring course credits towards the baccalaureate. Until now, policymakers have mainly focused on improving the ease of transfer between two and four-year institutions in the public sector. We must also improve transfer pathways to private colleges.

By opening their doors to community college transfer students, private colleges can help improve their odds of earning a bachelor's degree. Private colleges can also relieve pressure on public higher education systems that are struggling under budget cuts to provide sufficient enrollment capacity. This is true not only in urban centers, but also in rural areas where the closest transfer destination for a community college graduate is likely to be an independent college. 

The Teagle Foundation and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations' joint initiative to foster transfer pathways from two-year public community colleges to four-year private liberal arts colleges offers a path forward. Successful efforts are already proceeding in Connecticut, Massachusetts and North Carolina - involving over 50 independent colleges and benefiting hundreds of transfer admits. These are models for what should be a national initiative. 

For example, associate degree completers in Connecticut are now guaranteed transfer admission and access to financial aid at participating independent colleges that have embraced the 'Transfer Ticket' curricula established for transfer to Connecticut state colleges and universities. Students arrive on campus with general education requirements waived and junior status in their chosen majors.

The Biden-Harris administration can incentivize more states to build coalitions of independent colleges to recruit and graduate community college transfer aspirants. The federal government could also make grants to encourage more states to adopt transfer frameworks for both public and private institutions following the blueprint established by the Teagle-AVDF initiative. This initiative has demonstrated that relatively modest resources can create effective statewide public-private partnerships that dramatically expand the range of transfer destinations, both public and private, for community college transfer aspirants.

The federal government should also incentivize community college students to take the next step in their education by increasing the dollar amount for Pell grants for eligible students who transfer from a two-year public institution to a four-year public or private institution. This would mitigate the 'sticker shock' students face as they move from one sector to another.

Finally, there is Jill Biden herself - a former community college student who successfully transferred and earned a liberal arts baccalaureate degree. She now has an extraordinary pulpit from which to champion the expansion of educational opportunity by strengthening transfer access to liberal arts colleges for community college graduates. We hope she will continue to raise her voice in this cause of educating more young people in our diverse democracy.

Loni Bordoloi Pazich is program director for institutional initiatives at the Teagle Foundation, where Andrew Delbanco serves as president. Michael Murray is president of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. The Teagle Foundation is dedicated to strengthening liberal arts education, which we see as fundamental to meaningful work effective citizenship and a fulfilling life. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations supports inclusive higher education and health care, vibrant spiritual communities and a clean environment.

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