Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Will Free Community College Really Help Low-Income Students?

By Kate Schwass — June 23, 2017 5 min read

In the face of soaring college tuitions and skyrocketing educational inequity, many educators and lawmakers are suggesting a way to help low-income students earn degrees: Why not offer in-state students community college for free?

After years in the shadows, the idea is gaining real momentum. Just last month, Tennessee, which already had a free-community-college program for recent high school graduates, announced it will open that program to any adult in the state without a college degree in 2018. Earlier this year, San Francisco became the first city in the country to offer free community college to all of its residents, and lawmakers in California, New York, and Rhode Island introduced similar proposals to cover tuition and other costs for students.

Online Comm Schwass 300x250 OP Getty

At first glance, it’s hard to see why free community college (specifically, free tuition for two-year schools that grant associate degrees) would be anything but helpful for students from low-income backgrounds. Students who graduate from community college have lower rates of unemployment and earn $6,600 more a year than those who have a high school diploma. Remove the cost of earning an associate’s degree, and you’ll put its benefits within reach of any student who wants one—right?

It’s clear that the prospect of free tuition will likely motivate more low-income students to enroll in community college. But those students still face considerable obstacles having nothing to do with money once they arrive on campus. What’s more, free tuition could deter low-income students from pursuing four-year colleges and universities.

Until educators account for these truths, we could be inadvertently pushing large numbers of students away from their best educational path in four-year colleges or universities.

One challenge for low-income community college students is that they are more likely to be needlessly placed in remedial courses than their wealthier peers and those at four-year colleges. Most colleges require that incoming students take standardized placement tests to see if they need remedial reading, writing, and math courses. About 70 percent of low-income community college students are placed in remedial courses, compared with about 50 percent of their wealthier community college peers.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why free community college is anything but helpful for students from low-income backgrounds."

Despite the good intention, remedial courses are a significant barrier to graduation. A 2012 report from the nonprofit Complete College America found that fewer than one in 10 students who begin in remedial courses graduate from community colleges within three years. This is in part because remedial courses don’t count toward a degree—a discouraging prospect for many students. What’s more, the standardized tests that typically determine remediation decisions are often not accurate—as many as a third of all students are forced to review content they already understand well.

In addition, low-income students, in particular, have a greater chance of being burdened with negative stereotypes about their own academic aptitude. In these situations, it’s not hard to imagine how remediation could feel like a stigma.

On-campus environments are another sticking point. All college students, including those who come from low-income backgrounds, benefit from a strong on-campus community—which can allay fears that they do not belong. However, an estimated 75 percent of community colleges don’t offer on-campus housing. This means that students are more likely to leave campus after class, making it a challenge to build a community of supportive peers.

Despite these obstacles, free community college will certainly help some groups of low-income students, such as those who aren’t academically eligible for four-year colleges or those who are already enrolled in, and paying tuition for, community college.

But in many cases, low-income high school graduates stand a better chance than they expect of attending and affording a four-year college or university—where they’re more likely to graduate with a degree.

College tuition is expensive and keeps getting more so. The average in-state price for tuition and fees for four-year public colleges was about $9,400 per year in 2015-16, compared with less than $500 (in today’s dollars) in the 1970s. But four-year colleges are often more accessible than they seem. If students know which cost-cutting resources they can access—financial aid and tax benefits, for example—the College Board estimates they could pay less than half the public-university sticker price. Moreover, dozens of schools—both private and public, ranging from Stanford to the University of California to Michigan State—do not charge their lowest-income students tuition.

The problem is that many low-income students never take advantage of these resources. Sometimes they lack access to information about financial-aid options. They might also have heard so much about the high costs of college that they see no reason to dig deeper. Nationally, only about 45 percent of high school seniors complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, by the time they graduate. It’s hard to imagine that trend changing when free community college is on the table.

So how can we help high school students parse out their best options?

High school teachers and school leaders should work with local community colleges to make sure students avoid unnecessary remediation. For example, high schools in Long Beach, Calif., share students’ junior- and senior-year grades with the local community college to better inform remediation decisions. This method not only increased the number of students placed directly into college-level courses, but showed that students were successful in those courses at the same rates as those who had received developmental instruction.

Another important strategy is rethinking how to share college information with students. When counselors and teachers discuss higher ed. options and pathways with their students, they need to describe free community college accurately: not as a panacea ensuring college access, but as one of many available options for higher education. Schools should also invite counselors and students from local community colleges to talk to rising juniors and seniors about the opportunities and academic or social challenges they might find on campus.

With this type of support from educators at every level, proposals for free community college stand a better chance of living up to their purpose, and low-income students stand a better chance of finding an educational path that will support their incredible potential.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 19, 2017 edition of Education Week

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