Comments on the White House Announcement on New Community College Initiatives

The President announced two new community college initiatives today: a joint federal-state effort to make community college free for students who meet certain requirements; and a new grants program for colleges to expand the teaching programs in technical fields.

There is a lot to like in these proposals. First, the President’s zero tuition plan would improve the access of lower-to-middle income students to community colleges, especially those whose families might feel some strain when paying for tuition (plus books, fees, and the like).  Second, it would reward students enrolling at least halftime, earning decent grades (defined as a GPA of at least 2.5), and making adequate progress towards their degree. All of these characteristics are associated with higher completion rates among students, and therefore it is good for these choices and outcomes to be encouraged. Third, the free tuition is restricted to programs generating either transfers to 4-year colleges or good employment in the labor market, so these outcomes would be encouraged too. Fourth, the technical fields for which colleges would receive grants are definitely the fields for in which labor market demand is strong, and where more student enrollment and completion would raise their subsequent earnings.

Some questions remain about whether free community college tuition is the best way to expand access. Most of the benefits of this proposal will not go to the poor, who already pay for community college with Pell grants; instead, the benefits will go to non-poor students who otherwise do not attend or go somewhere else. While it is laudable to help all students, including the non-poor, this proposal would be quite expensive if fully implemented, and it is not well-targeted to those who need the most help.

Indeed, some middle-class students, who now attend 4-year colleges right away, might opt instead to go to community college for the first 2 years, where their educational outcomes may not be as strong (since there is always some slippage in the transfer process between colleges). Furthermore, given the teaching capacity constraints that exist at so many community colleges already, a large influx of middle-class students might result in poorer students being squeezed out of the classes or supports that they need and would otherwise obtain. 

Overall, the President is to be commended for proposals that would not only raise access to college but also encourage behaviors and outcomes of students associated with higher success rates, in terms of completing programs and gaining instruction in high-demand, well-paying fields. No doubt there will continue to be debates about whether this is the best path forward, but the overall direction is positive and this discussion is a good one to encourage.