Investment in Access Must Be Matched By Investment in SuccessMichele Siqueiros | President, Campaign for College Opportunity
Free community college recognizes that in today’s economy, a high school degree is not enough. Investing in sending more Americans to college is wise, but it can only be a reality if there is a spot in college for them once they arrive.
Do they have courses they can take? Do they have a clear pathway to earn that degree or transfer to a four-year university? To have that requires that states support expanded enrollment in community colleges so that more students can make their college dreams a reality. With those additional dollars invested, colleges must be asked to do a better job at serving students and ensuring that they succeed. The real return on investment isn’t just for every student that walks into a college classroom; it’s for those who cross the graduation stage and come out prepared and skilled to make the U.S. economy stronger.
Offering students two free years of community college can benefit low-income and under-represented students like Blacks and Latinos, who often cite cost as the major barrier to going to college and who may not otherwise access higher education.
We must remember, however, that tuition is only part of the cost equation for college. In California, where community college fees are the lowest in the country and low-income students can already attend without paying fees if they qualify for a Board of Governor fee waiver, students still have significant expenses associated with attending college such as books, transportation and child care. If students work and are unable to attend college full time, other challenges and costs can add up.
In 2014, the Campaign for College Opportunity released a study, The Real Cost of College, which documented the high cost of college associated with delayed time to degree. We found that every additional year a student is enrolled in community college the total cost increase is about $7,600 in fees, books, and living expenses. Ultimately, this costs each student more than $15,000 in lost wages over a lifetime.
If we want to reduce the cost burden for students so that more can access college and participate in our economy, we have to discuss opportunities to expand financial aid beyond tuition/fees and we have to discuss ways in which we can support our students to complete college on time.
Labor Market Implications: Access, Completion, Outcomes and Funding
There’s more at stake than simply raising the completion rate. Today, more and more jobs require skills beyond high school and young people recognize the value of a college education in opening doors of opportunity. This change in our economy and in workforce needs requires that we be committed to both college access and completion. We need more students than ever to be able to go to college but that’s not enough. We need them to earn degrees.
The introduction of the America’s College Promise Act in Congress would provide students in participating states with two free years of community college but would also require that states maintain funding levels for higher education and that states be held accountable for improving performance by tying a portion of funding to student success outcomes. This legislation is responsive to the reality of a competitive marketplace where skilled workers are needed and has the potential to help support greater college preparation for more Americans.
However, free community college must come hand in hand with adequate funding for our colleges to expand access and with expectations and accountability for improving college completion and closing the unacceptable equity gaps between racial/ethnic groups. In California—where many community college students receive a Board of Governors Fee waiver, that covers the cost of classes—these students already have “free” community college, but they may have trouble getting the courses they need, seeing a counselor, figuring out how to transfer or earn a degree, and/or getting the support services they need to succeed. As a result, college completion rates have hovered below 50 percent over a six-year period of time.
We can really get things right if we simultaneously remove a portion of the cost burden from students while funding more college courses and student support services and demanding greater accountability for outcomes from our colleges and universities.
Reliable Funding Critical to Facilitating Success
California’s community colleges make up the largest system of higher education in the nation. The system serves 2.3 million students annually. During the height of the Great Recession, demand for community colleges was high at the precise time the system’s budget was being drastically cut. This resulted in waiting lists of over half a million students across the system.
Fortunately, California’s budget has provided significant new funding for community colleges in the past two years that are allowing colleges to serve more students and restore some of the services cut during the recession. Just as importantly, these funds include a focus on improving student transfer rates, providing greater orientation and guidance for students, and improving remedial education courses.
In a model where community college is free for the first two years, we will likely see increased demand from students interested in attending college. This is why it is important that our colleges have predictable funding over time so that they can serve the students who want to attend their institutions, especially if free tuition draws in more students to already crowded campuses. Free course loads will not help if students are unable to get the classes they need. It’s also important that colleges are moving students through college in a timely fashion so that spots are available to incoming students.
The Role of Government Bodies in Increasing Access and Completion
State and federal government officials should absolutely hold the community colleges accountable for improving currently low completion rates and better serving all students, including non-traditional and underrepresented racial/ethnic students.
In California, we need a bold new plan for higher education that identifies clear goals to provide access and ensure completion for the additional 2.3 million people with college credentials to meet our workforce demands, which includes our need for one million more bachelor degrees and 1.3 million more associate degrees and certificates. The plan should focus on closing gaps between white, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Latino, and black students, and include measures to improve student pathways and access to serve more California students.
Improvements in transfer pathways, student support services, and academic advising to move students through college will continue to be critical and should be addressed by college leaders.
We also need to encourage more students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) since only 33 percent of all California community college students apply for federal financial aid. Simplifying the FAFSA would allow for more students to apply and receive financial aid and cover additional expenses needed to go to college assuming tuition is fully covered by a new plan. With the cost of college rising and more Californians enrolling in community colleges, increasing the amount of competitive Cal Grants for students would also be helpful. This way more students could take advantage of financial aid that includes both grant and loan programs that would greatly assist low-income and underrepresented students.
Author Perspective: Association