Free Community College Not a New Idea

Free community college could increase access to job training and education, but experts question its sustainability.

College students attend a lecture in a classroom.

More affordable community college could increase access to job training and education.

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In 1947, a group of education leaders recommended to then-President Harry Truman that education should be both universal and free, from kindergarten through the community college level, as a way to improve access and affordability to higher education.

“It is obvious, that free and universal access to education, in terms of the interest, ability, and need of the student, must be a major goal in American education,” the commission’s report stated. “The time has come to make education through the fourteenth grade available in the same way that high school education is now available.”

Now, a handful of states are again attempting to make that proposal a reality, by offering free community college to students, not only to address the issue of affordability, but also to tackle a growing need for technically trained workers in America.

[READ: The College Payoff: Two-Year Degrees Often Pay More, Science Degrees Less]

“So back in 1947, a bunch of American luminaries thought it was a good idea,” says Noah Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees. “Obviously, we haven’t realized that dream yet. In a sense, it’s not a new idea, but the devil is in the details and its execution.”

Years after Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick unsuccessfully pushed for free community college, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam resurrected that goal when he announced plans to provide two free years of community and technical college to all state residents with a high school diploma or equivalent during his State of the State address on Monday. House members in Mississippi are also considering a plan to subsidize community college tuition after financial aid is taken into account, while Oregon’s legislature is considering a similar bill that would call for a study of the viability of such a program.

“In the year 2025, 55 percent of Tennesseans will need a certificate or degree beyond high school to get a job,” Haslam said in his speech. “Today, only 32 percent of Tennesseans qualify. To truly be America at its best, that’s not good enough.”

By the year 2020, 65 percent of all jobs nationwide will require some sort of postsecondary training, according to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Meanwhile, America has dropped in international standings of educational attainment.

[MORE: Report: Economy Will Face Shortage of 5 Million Workers in 2020]

Once a world leader in the number of young people with a college education, America slipped to 12th place in 2010, according to a report from the College Board. Canada tops the list of developed nations, with 56 percent of all adults between 24 and 35 obtaining a college degree. By comparison, 40 percent of Americans in that age group are college-educated.

President Barack Obama has also made it a priority of his administration to push for the country to graduate more students from college – both to meet that workforce demand, and to give all students the opportunity to receive a college education.

One way to do that is to make college more affordable to all students and families. Community colleges are in a unique position to both train students for technical jobs and to prepare them to move on to four-year colleges and universities. But those schools have also faced the budget cuts and tuition hikes seen in bachelor’s degree-granting institutions. On the surface, subsidizing the cost of attendance for community colleges could expand the gateway for both jobs and degrees.

But the problems of college access and affordability run much deeper than the high sticker price of tuition and fees, experts say, because the two goals are so closely intertwined.

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Because community colleges often are heavily reliant on state funds, forming a model for universal and free community college could be problematic, according to David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges. Any attempt to further subsidize the cost of attendance, beyond financial aid already in place, would depend on the state budget situation, he says.

“This kind of attention to the financial barriers students face attending our institutions is great,” Baime says. “It sends a very strong signal to students that they can attend community college because, unfortunately, many students are intimidated by the sticker price of college.” 

Between the 2002-03 and 2011-12 academic years, the average tuition and fees at public, two-year colleges increased by 38.5 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Another breakdown of the increases, from the College Board, shows the average tuition for full-time community college students increased by 29 percent in five years – from 2008-09 to 2013-14. By comparison, average tuition increased by just 4 percent during the prior five years, from 2003-04 to 2008-09. 

That’s because state investment in higher education rapidly declined during the same time. Typically, about half of all community college funding comes from state and local budgets, Baime says, although that number has declined. 

[READ: Despite Increases, States Spend Less on Higher Ed Than Before the Recession]

As the economy slowly starts to recover from the Great Recession, states are beginning to reinvest in their higher education systems. Nationwide, states increased their spending on higher education by 5.7 percent between 2013 and 2014. But that increase still leaves funding levels below where they were before the recession, and there’s no sign of any drastic increase in the near future, according to an annual report from Illinois State University’s Center for the Study of Education Policy.

But the larger problem lies in the business model of colleges, and the cost of delivering an education, Brown says. 

Remedial education, for example, is a huge financial burden on community colleges, he says. According to a 2012 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, remedial credits make up about 10 percent of all credits earned at community college and cost a total of $4 billion annually – just in the community college sector.

“Imagine if we could reinvest [that money] in other areas of need, which could include providing more reduced or free tuition to students who need it,” Brown says. “There are ways, in my opinion, of growing resources, but we have to be smarter and more intentional about things, including student success and completion.” 

Colleges need to “modernize or rethink” their business models in order to be sustainable in the long run, Brown says. 

[SEE ALSO: White House, College Presidents Target Affordability]

One potential problem with the way some colleges function is that the financial aid institutions offer often is the product of a “high tuition, high aid” model. Some expensive colleges rely on some students paying the full price of attendance in order to offer reduced prices for low-income students, says Andrew Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute.

That model, he says, is going to get more difficult to sustain if prices keep rising because “the people you used to count on paying full price no longer want to do that.” 

“Is that necessarily a good definition of affordability for the long term?” Kelly says. “Rather than just letting that cost skyrocket, and financing it by this high tuition, high aid model, we also want campuses to try to get control over their costs and bring that tuition price lower to the actual cost of delivering the service.”