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From Concept to Reality: Considering Free Community College

The EvoLLLution | From Concept to Reality: Considering Free Community College
Given the societal and financial costs of the free tuition proposal, bolstering existing and successful programs like Pell Grants would be a better use of resources.

A lot of attention over the past few months has been given to free tuition at community colleges. However, there has been little talk about the budget growth necessary to support the infrastructure and wrap-around support services that free tuition dollars will require as a result of greater student populations. Moreover, there has been little attention paid to how the move would change the public value for higher education. In this piece, I will address both issues.

There’s More to Community College Costs Than Tuition

Community college costs cover more than tuition; it includes books for students and student services provided by community colleges. These costs are often lost in this discussion. Tuition is just one component.

Community college is already a great value for all students, and actually free for many through Pell Grants and state subsidies. However the issue of free tuition creates a series of both culturally and operationally cascading nuances. Community colleges provide a wide range of community programs and specialized student support services that require staffing proportionate to the student population.

Providing free tuition to open access institutions creates overhead cost challenges that simply funding the tuition may not cover.

Open enrollment, of course, means no student is refused regardless of their college-level work readiness. This is already a significant issue for community colleges; you do not have to look very far to find statistics for underprepared students who cannot access four-year institutions, but are guaranteed access to community college as laid out by the open-access mission. We hear that 70-90 percent of current incoming community college students require some type of remediation for math and English. These remedial courses, of course, do not count toward a degree. They simply provide students with the base-level skills they need to register in for-credit classes.

That’s a high number for the paying community college student population. To support the success of this massive student population, community colleges offer a range of student services above and beyond simply offering remedial classes. You’ll find tutoring and other creative wrap-around and support services to help underprepared students reach college level ability.

The current free tuition plan has proposed conditions such as a 2.5 GPA as a safeguard. However, many community colleges report even their high-GPA students require remediation. A GPA, then, is not an adequate measure of whether a student can succeed without critical supportive infrastructure and wrap-around services provided by community colleges.

The Social Effect: How Free Impacts the Societal Valuation of College

Think for a moment on the cultural issues of free in relation to how Americans value work. The idea of free tuition works in Europe because it is ingrained in the culture, not because it is free. That’s not a judgment as much as cultural observation. It could be why government-sponsored healthcare is so anathema in the US but widely accepted (and expected) in Europe; it is a cultural norm. Ultimately, culture dictates what we accept as the social contract and how we value of the concept of work ethic.

Contrast the work ethic with the free offer and more than not providing infrastructure wrap-around student support services funding for community colleges in the free tuition proposal, you have a clash of cultural values and norms. We value Pell and other grant services since they imply the work ethic; there are income requirements, standards of academic progress (SAP) and other factors that promote a strong work ethic while providing financial support for students to complete college. For the neediest students, community college is already free but in the current construct this actually supports a strong work ethic.


The price of free is much higher than the cost of supporting productivity. Pell is a productive way to support students and has accountability measures and income guidelines. Rather than offer free tuition would it not be better to bolster Pell, a system already working? What happens to retention when you take away the work ethic and make community college free? Since there is no cost to stay longer and little incentive to finish sooner, do we open the door to yet more abuse since tuition would be free and Pell and other grants still available?

Education should be a right of every citizen, as it should be to live safely where you choose, have access to health care and employment. However, do we really want to sacrifice the work ethic that built this country, creating a faux need since access to education is already available? Is it always dollars that keep students from college or is it the ethic of sacrifice and contribution that make our education system? Many questions that are not even being discussed, before we lose our value proposition on higher education, we should think through the true price of free.


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