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.
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.
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.