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Making the Dream a Reality: Logistical and Infrastructural Considerations for the Free Two-Year College Environment

Co-written with Kristina Keller | Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs, St. Cloud Technical and Community College

The EvoLLLution | Making the Dream a Reality: Logistical and Infrastructural Considerations for the Free Two-Year College Environment
Opening the doors to two-year colleges more widely is a great start, but government bodies must ensure colleges have the resources necessary to serve these students if these free college plans are to achieve their goals.

Understanding Why There Is So Much Interest In Making At Least A Portion Of College “Free”

The reasons for doing so are basically threefold. Studies show we will need many more college-educated people in the U.S. workplace than we are currently producing. Secondly, studies show that education can and does lift people out of poverty. Thirdly, the cost to attend college can be an insurmountable barrier to entrance for some and the debt accumulated while attending college can become a huge burden for many of our students.

Americans now collectively owe more than $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. About 37 percent of households headed by an adult younger than 40 have student debt according to the Pew Research Center. As a result of this trend, student loan debt is becoming a central issue on the national stage.

The idea of free college is advancing on many fronts. An existing model is the Tennessee Promise, which has been active since 2014. In Oregon, they just approved a similar Oregon Promise model, and the District of Columbia is currently progressing a similar bill. National proposals for free two-year college tuition plans are being put forth by President Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Martin O’Malley. All of these proposals to some degree create a post-secondary system that is similar to K-12 education, available to all, where students don’t have to worry about how they are going to finance at least the first two years college tuition.

Free two-year college would likely have a huge impact on the nation if a lot of people took advantage of it. As a point of comparison, consider the GI Bill that granted free higher education access for GIs in 1944, which was the catalyst for the greatest economic expansion in our nation’s history. These current national proposals, if enacted, would throw open the doors of higher education to all Americans, and potentially prompt another great economic expansion.

Enacting such a proposal would be welcome news to many American families who are worrying about how they will fund a college education. It would also support the mission of community colleges throughout the U.S. to provide open access to a higher education opportunity.

Logistical Issues for Colleges

How might colleges need to change and adapt if a free college plan is enacted? If any of the free college plans being put forth were adopted on a large scale, colleges would have some logistical and infrastructure issues to be worked out. The big overarching question for free college is, assuming enrollment will dramatically increase, how would colleges handle that increase and do so in a manner that enhances student success?

Some questions to consider if the first two years of college were to become free:

  1. How would we adjust staffing and service levels (tutors, remediation education, reporting requirements, financial aid, student life, etc.) to meet the increase in enrollees?
  2. How would we quickly scale the infrastructure (technology, buildings, etc.) needed to support the increased number of students attending?
  3. Colleges have waiting lists for some programs and courses. How would we increase capacity and do so in a strategic way that satisfies student and market demands?
  4. Expenses other than tuition such as food, transportation, housing and books can present significant hurdles for students. How would those affordability issues be addressed if not included in the free college plan?
  5. How do we ensure that credits gained at two-year campuses will transfer to universities?
  6. Will we have enough locations for internships and clinicals? Can we get employers to cooperate with increased need for placements?
  7. How could we significantly increase the number of students who finish degrees even if college is free?
  8. After students graduate, how do we assist with career placement, given we may have a large increase in graduates? What are the regional needs of employers? How do we avoid flooding the market with too many students in certain areas?

Some actions that colleges could begin taking to prepare for free college:

  1. Simplify the application process and shorten forms.
  2. Look for alternative ways to deliver courses such as using online learning management systems and video delivery for online classes and distance learning.
  3. Work with our local communities such as high schools, community centers and businesses to offer more courses at off-campus locations.
  4. Get our business partners and vendors to help us offer services and other opportunities for our students. This could potentially be a long list.
  5. Start garnering support from our local elected officials and let them know we will need their help to make this work.
  6. It seems obvious, but we must ensure we are offering quality programs. If we’re not providing students with the quality of education they need to be successful we should question why they should attend at all.
  7. Partner with local high schools to begin remediation for math and English earlier in the educational process. Provide a well-lit path to college preparedness.
  8. Expand programs for open source textbooks to help overcome the issue of high textbook costs.
  9. Ensure that we are providing adequate academic planning resources for guidance and schedule planning, which are crucial components to student success.

If free two-year college were to become a reality it would pose a challenge for the nation’s community colleges. Just offering free two-year college is not enough. College may become free to students but it will not be cost-free to the colleges. Legislatures and Congress must provide adequate resources to accommodate the increased number of students. Although some questions remain unanswered, it is certain that the nation’s community colleges would rise to the occasion if given the opportunity to serve in this capacity.

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