Why Free Community College Will Not Help Students Succeed

Posted by Kevin Bauman on 4/13/15 7:00 AM

Community_College_Students_Remedial_StudiesEarlier this year, President Obama proposed that the Federal government should set aside $60B over 10 years to fund 2 years of tuition at Community Colleges for students whose parents earn less than $200k.1  While it always sounds good on paper to promise “free stuff”, America’s College Promise would do very little to tackle the more pressing challenge facing community colleges. The challenge is not a question of access, but rather completion. Only 20% of full-time students seeking a degree get one within three years. That number rises to 35% after five years, but at that point another 45% of students are no longer enrolled.2 At the same time, there is high interest in these schools as evidenced by the number of students who enroll. As of the 2012-2013 school year, 45% of all undergraduate students were enrolled in public two-year colleges, approximately 7.7 million students.3 Millions of students express their interest in community college to the point that they enroll, but only a fraction of that cohort graduates. What happens in between?

At Penn Foster, we address three areas of risk to students that typically prevent them from graduating from the program they are enrolled in.  We categorize them as academic, financial, and motivational. The reasons students struggle fall into these three buckets. Determining the greatest risk area and taking action to address it will help students stay in school and graduate.

Offering Free Community College Only Addresses Financial Risk Factor

Based on the America’s College Promise program, it is clear that President Obama believes that the greatest risk factor for students is financial. This is not the case. Money is not what is keeping students from being successful in community college and graduating. The real issue, the true risk factor, is Motivation. Students attending community college often have many other life responsibilities that can conflict with classes and take precedence over schoolwork. Many students attending community college have full- or part-time jobs, children, and family responsibilities, in addition to school. Getting money doesn’t help these students balance their busy lives and schedules, or the realities of being a working adult.  In fact, community college is actually a good value for it’s cost. According to a report published by the American Association of Community Colleges, the benefit-cost ratio for students who attend and graduate from community college is 4.8. The report explains that “for every $1 students invest in America’s community colleges in the form of out-of-pocket expenses and forgone time and money, they receive a cumulative of $4.80 in higher future wages.”4 Additionally, 4-year schools cost on average 4x more than community colleges, while only yielding 32% higher yearly income on average.5,6 Compared to alternative options, the value from community college is high for students considering it’s cost.

Furthermore, waiving tuition for someone who isn’t ready for the coursework doesn’t help. Many students enrolling in community colleges have been out of school for a while, and therefore experience difficulties when they go back. Getting back into the swing of academics, homework and studying is challenging, especially for those who struggled in school before.  This is a challenge that many community college students face. According to data from the Federal BPS (Beginning Postsecondary Students) data from 2009, 68% of students beginning at public two-year colleges in 2003-2004 took one or more remedial courses in the 6 years after their initial entry according.3

What About the Motivation & Academic Risk Factors?

How do we address the right risk areas - motivation and academic, instead of financial? It’s important to allow students to study and access the material in the time they have available - let their school schedule fit around their other responsibilities, not the other way around. This can be done by letting students progress at their own pace, access materials online, and have 24/7 online support. By allowing students to focus on their schoolwork when they have the time, a major stress is eliminated. They no longer have to choose between school and their job, or school and their family. Instead, students have the control to plan their schedules around their various responsibilities so there is no overlap. Students are less likely to get overwhelmed and are better prepared to focus on their schoolwork when it’s time to study.

Another benefit of self-paced learning is that students can take as much time as they need to learn the material. If a student has a hard time with a particular subject, they can spend more time on it. This is particularly helpful for students who have not been in school for a while. It is also a good idea for students to start with more basic, introductory courses and work their way up to more academically rigorous material. Not only does this give students a solid base to build on, it also lets them adjust to school and studying without getting too overwhelmed by the subject matter.

Looking Forward

To help community college students graduate, we should focus our attention on the motivation and academic risk factors, instead of looking to finances. Money can’t solve the graduation rates we are seeing. We need to adjust our school model to better serve nontraditional students and provide flexible academic support. Instead of attacking the financial risk, our government’s efforts should be focused on the motivational and academic risk factors for students. Rather than providing free tuition to community college, we should use that money to move our country towards a school system that actually works with the realities our students live with instead of ignoring them.


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Resources: Photo NY Times; (1) Obama: Community college should be ‘as free and universal in America as high school’ (2) Report: Community College Attendance Up, But Graduation Rates Remain Low (3) Community College FAQs (4) Executive Summary - Where Value Meets Values: The Economic Impact of Community Colleges (5) Average Published Undergraduate Charges by Sector, 2014-15 (6) Learn More, Earn More

Topics: Middle Skills Gap, Industry News, College Enrollment & Retention


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