President Obama has misguidedly set his sights on giving away two years of free tuition to “responsible” community college students who attend at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 GPA.
Unfortunately, “America’s College Promise” is, like so many other public relations campaigns the White House devises to attract the support of young voters, of little use to the very people it vows to help.
In his speech announcing the proposal, the president said: “For millions of Americans, community colleges are essential pathways to the middle class because they’re local, they’re flexible. They work for people who work full time. They work for parents who have to raise kids full time. They work for folks who have gone as far as their skills will take them and want to earn new ones, but don’t have the capacity to just suddenly go study for four years and not work.”
And yet, these are the very students who would probably not qualify for free tuition because their full-time work or parental responsibilities would make it nearly impossible for them to spend enough time in class.
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Many of us who want to earn new skills but have demanding jobs and family responsibilities do indeed access courses at community colleges — and we usually have to do it one course at a time. My three-credit-hour spring semester class starts Jan. 20 at my local community college and I’ll have all I can handle, so I know what I’m talking about.
But what if we focus only on recent high school graduates?
What President Obama did not point out during his stirring speech about investments in education paying dividends is that money is not the biggest barrier to completion for the average community college student.
According to the American Association of Community Colleges, annual tuition at community colleges is less than half that of four-year public colleges and, at an average of $3,260, is likely to be either very affordable for a middle-class student or already free to those with low incomes once you calculate in financial aid. The maximum Pell Grant award for the 2014-15 award year is $5,730.
Ask anyone even remotely knowledgeable about the poor outcomes for community college students — only 43% of students who attended a two-year public higher-ed institution full-time managed to graduate in six years from their starting institution — and he or she will not mention affordability as the main culprit.
You have to understand that community colleges are burdened by the task of offering low-cost education to what is arguably the most difficult population of college-goers: those who are paying, at best, part-time attention to their educational goals and those who are simply unable to compete in the four-year-college financial aid game because of their grades.
According to federal data published in 2009 on beginning post-secondary students, 68% of students beginning at public two-year colleges in 2003-04 took one or more remedial courses in the six years after their initial entry. When you look at it this way, the idea of offering free tuition — whether funded from federal, state or local sources — misses the point.
The White House estimated that “America’s College Promise” will cost $60 billion over 10 years and didn’t say how it would be paid for. But if those dollars were found and invested in ensuring better outcomes for community college students, they’d be better spent on ensuring that feeder high schools graduated students whose diplomas actually guaranteed that they had college-ready competence in math, reading and writing.
Those dollars would also be better spent on more full-time community college professor jobs and/or higher salaries for the instructors tasked with teaching remedial and weed-out courses that keep students from making progress on their educational goals.
Or more tutoring services, affordable on-site child care or more accessible public transportation to campuses. There are any number of evidence-based interventions that could move the needle on getting those students who do attend community college for their post-secondary education — and not simple enrichment or career-enhancing certifications — to graduate from a two-year institution in less than six years.
Bettering education is a tough and complex mission dependent on myriad factors — many of which have nothing to do with school. We have to stop pretending that throwing money at real educational problems will magically produce the educated citizenry we all wish for.