‘College Promise’ isn’t likely

From Whiteboard Advisors, Education Insiders predict the future:

Universal college, but what about readiness?

President Obama wants to make the first two years of college just like high school. Free, that is.

Robert Fusco teaches division in a remedial math class at a New Jersey community college. (Photo by Elizabeth Redden)

Robert Fusco teaches division in a remedial math class at a New Jersey community college. (Photo by Elizabeth Redden)

“It seems that we can’t fix our high schools, which already send hundreds of thousands of graduates into remedial courses at community (and other) colleges,” writes Checker Finn. Adding two more years of universal education is “nuts.”

Community colleges are heavily subsidized, so tuition is low. In most states, Pell Grants cover the full cost of tuition for low-income students with money left over for books, rent and food.

The challenge isn’t access. It’s readiness—which is the precursor to successful completion of a degree or certificate from the community college. If you’re not prepared for college-level work when you arrive, the odds that you will succeed there are grim.

. . . (Universality) diverts resources and creates windfalls in ways that diminish the likelihood of ever solving the real problem.

Universality is “genius,” argues Richard Kahlenberg in The Atlantic. In Tennessee, almost 90 percent of graduating high school seniors have indicated interest in the state’s tuition-free community college plan, he writes.

The high interest suggests some middle-class and wealthy families whose children would have otherwise attended four-year colleges may be giving two-year institutions a second look. While some argue that free tuition for upper- and middle-class students is a waste of resources, in fact it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that community colleges are socioeconomically integrated.

Community colleges that serve middle- and upper-income students will gain the political capital to get more state funding, he argues.

Obama proposes 2 years of ‘free’ college

President Obama will propose federal funding to support two years of tuition-free community college for students who can maintain a 2.5 grade point average. Obama said the feds would pay three-fourths of tuition, while states would pick up the rest. The full plan should be ready by the State of the Union speech Jan. 20.

President Obama shakes hands before speaking at a  Tennessee community college.

President Obama shakes hands before speaking at a Tennessee community college.

Community college tuition averages $3,800 a year nationwide. In 16 states, it’s less than the federal Pell Grant, which means low-income students pay nothing and have money left over to pay for books and living expenses.

The free-tuition idea started in Tennessee, as I wrote on Community College Spotlight. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam realized the state could afford to fund the “last dollar” of community college tuition, the remnant not not already covered by federal aid. Mississippi, Oregon and Texas legislators have proposed similar plans.

Low-income students get little or no benefit from last-dollar plans, noted Robert Kelchen, a Seton Hall professor, in Inside Higher Ed. Most already pay little or no tuition, but struggle to pay for books, commuting, child care and rent.

Chicago will cover three years of community college tuition for college-ready public school graduates with at least a B average. It’s estimated 85 percent of students’ tuition and fees will be covered by Pell Grants, reports the Chicago Sun-Times.

In every state except New Hampshire and South Dakota, the average tuition and fees at community colleges was lower than the maximum Pell Grant of $5,645 in the 2013-14 academic year. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative sample of students enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, show that 38 percent of community college students had their tuition and fees entirely covered by grant aid. An additional 33 percent of students paid less than $1,000 out of pocket for tuition and fees. Eighty-five percent of Pell recipients at community colleges had sufficient grant aid to cover tuition and fees, meaning they would get no additional money from a “free college” program.

Unlike the Tennessee Promise and the Chicago plan, Obama’s proposal appears to go beyond covering the “last dollar.” But nobody’s quite sure how it will work.

I wonder what would happen to Pell Grants for community college students. Would a low-income student who’s paying no tuition still get the full grant to cover living expenses? That risks creating a “Pellfare” program that incentivizes enrollment but not completion.

Decreasing college costs could encourage more students to go to college — or to choose community college over a state university, notes the Washington Post.

A Texas study estimated cutting community college tuition by $1,000 boosted enrollment by 20 percent. However, there’s an unintended consequence: Many black students enrolled in community college instead of a four-year institution, the study found.

Low-income students who could qualify for a selective college sometimes choose a community college instead. “Undermatching” lowers the odds of graduation, researchers say. Community colleges attract many poorly prepared students. Completion rates are low.

Drawing more affluent students to community colleges would end economic segregation, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told the Wall Street Journal. “We’ve known since Brown vs. the Board of Education that separate is unequal, and today institutions for low-income and working-class kids vs. middle- and upper-class kids are rarely equal,” he said.

In Oregon, 13th grade = free year of college

Some Oregon students are signing up for a fifth year of high school — that’s really a first year of community college. Districts use state per-pupil funding to pay for community college tuition, fees and books — and throw in a counselor to help students handle the transition.

Completion Arch tracks progress data

The Completion Arch, a web-based tool provides access to national and state data on the progress and success of community college students.

High hopes, long odds

A fine arts major, Vladimir de Jesus hopes to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees and teach studio art and art history. In six semesters at New York City’s La Guardia Community College, he’s earned 27 credits of the 60 he needs to transfer — and he’s flunked remedial math three times.

Community college isn’t second class

Students can get a first-class education at community college — if they’re willing to make it a priority, do the work and connect with classmates and professors.

Fabricating products, skilled workers

At a community college in Flint, Michigan, the FabLab — complete with a 3D printer — trains students for skilled jobs and helps local entrepreneurs develop products.

College helps students plan, succeed

Helping students set academic and career goals and make a plan is raising success rates at a Florida community college. Hiring more tutors and counselors helps too.

When students are struggling, community college instructors send “early alerts” to coaches who will offer help before the semester is doomed.

‘College for all’ includes job training

College is the path to a good job, but that includes going to community college to train for skilled blue-collar jobs that offer a path to the middle class.