Tuition-Free Community College: Why Obama’s Proposal Won’t Work

 /  Jan. 29, 2015, 6:09 p.m.


On January 9, 2015, President Barack Obama announced a new initiative that calls for tuition-free community college for any half-time or full-time student with at least a  2.5 GPA. The federal government would cover three-fourths of students’ tuition, saving them approximately $3,800 per year (states who choose to partner with the federal government on this program would cover the remaining costs). Nine million students, approximately 40% of US college students, would benefit from the program, and it would cost the government only $60 billion over the course of ten years, which is less than 5% of what the government already spends on education each year.

Right off the bat, the program sounds like a wonderful idea that would help plenty of students across the country, and a recent poll shows that 60% of Americans favor the president’s proposal. However, after accounting for both the costs and benefits of the initiative, the entire plan begins to unravel.

First, relatively few of the people eligible for this program are even prepared to enter into community college. Spending $60 billion for students to attend college is a great initiative, but it will be a poor investment if they cannot succeed there. Fifty percent of community college students place into remedial education courses (based on how they score on placement tests that they are required to take prior to entering community college). A study conducted by Teachers College, a graduate program at Columbia University, shows that this statistic directly relates to students’ lack of preparation in high school—lower final grades in their secondary education often resulted in lower placement in college. Tuition-free community college ultimately aims to fix the public education problem in this nation twelve years too late into a student’s academic career. While many students might be able to attend community college for free under this program, just as many will drop out due to highly insufficient primary and secondary educations.

About a month ago, The New York Times reported on Dr. Eduardo Vianna, and his experiences teaching at LaGuardia Community College, located in the Queens borough of New York City. The school offers classes to about fifty thousand students, most of them from low-income families. For a variety of reasons, one-third of these students drop out in their first year. Some were ill-prepared by their high schools for a more rigorous college environment. For instance, only two students in Dr. Vianna’s class understood what “G.O.P.” referred to. Others simply failed to see the value of a general education, especially if they had very specific career goals in mind—becoming a stewardess or makeup artist, for example. These students could have gone to technical schools for these careers but chose to enroll in community college anyway, having been constantly told throughout their lives that a college degree is always a fundamental step to a successful life. The last reason many of these students dropped out probably was due to the cost of community college. This is not the leading cause in most cases. Instead, it is combined with other factors, such as struggling with academics. For example, a number of students probably reason, “Why pay a high price to fail out of classes?”

Thus, because so few students are prepared for college, many of them, like The Times article concludes, simply drop out. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 31% of students in two-year programs successfully graduate within three years. Furthermore, only 15% of community college students who transfer to four-year schools graduate from those four-year schools within six years. The City Colleges of Chicago, whose new policy inspired the president’s tuition-free proposal, have an average three-year graduation rate of 10% among the seven community colleges and an average transfer-out rate of 30% (these are first-year students who transfer to four-year schools, other two-year schools, or another city college of Chicago). These numbers suggest that 60% of Chicago’s community college students fail to complete their education beyond the high school level.

All of these accounts of academic struggles in college beg the question: why?

It is not earth-shattering news that there is something very wrong with our public primary and secondary education systems, and yet no one seems to be able to find out what it is. No president’s education reform program, ranging from LBJ’s Head Start to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, no matter how aggressive, has really made a significant impact. High school graduation rates range from 62% in Nevada to 88% in Iowa, with an average rate of 78%. One-fifth of all students in the nation fail to graduate from high school. Some may point out that the nationwide high school graduation rate has been increasing steadily in recent years, and that 78% is a high; however, the nationwide high school graduation rate stood at a similar figure of 77.1% in 1970 and dipped into the 60-70% range in the years in between. High school students are poorly prepared for college for a number of reasons, including ineffective teachers, lack of resources in needier school districts, overcrowded schools with less individual attention, and unsuitable environments for study at school or at home.

Meanwhile, the White House argues that the United States economy truly began to thrive when the government provided widespread free public high school education about one hundred years ago, and that  it should therefore now provide widespread free community college education to create that same outcome. However, as the statistics and studies mentioned above show, the public education system in many places is far from effective. Shouldn’t the federal government fix what it started a century ago before setting its sights on college?

If the federal government takes the money it would spend on tuition-free community colleges and directs it to a better cause, namely improving public primary and secondary education, then students across the nation would be well-prepared for both college and their future careers. They would not only succeed in community college, but also in a four-year school that they would be more than capable of transferring to. Four years in college would admittedly be expensive without the government footing the entire bill, but loans are always available, as is financial aid to lower-income students (provided by both the federal government and the colleges themselves), and these students who were able to succeed in college as a result of their quality primary and secondary educations will be able to obtain well-paying careers to pay off any and all existing loans.

The most important way in which the federal government can improve public elementary, middle, and high schools is by providing sufficient funds so that school districts can offer more competitive, merit-based salaries to their staff. This would attract the highest-quality teachers and administrators and subsequently make for higher quality learning in classrooms. In fact, the federal government has already begun this process with Race to the Top, a program whose purpose is to recruit the most effective teachers and administrators, as well as prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace. However, this program has run into a number of obstacles, including the controversy surrounding the Common Core, which sets state standards that dictate the level of proficiency that all K-12 students should reach in subjects such as English language and mathematics. In addition, standardized tests based on the Common Core standards are largely what determine a teacher’s merit—an immensely flawed solution to merit-based salaries. Merit-based pay also conflicts with the ideology of teachers unions, sparking a debate so fierce that it could be the subject of its own article.

It goes without saying that the solution to the country’s flawed public education system is far from simple. Regardless, the federal government must continue to recognize that the problems associated with primary and secondary education do in fact still exist, rather than skipping ahead and focusing on community colleges.

Ultimately, the solution can be viewed as a three-step process: make public education available for everyone (already completed), guarantee an effective public education system that actually prepares students for college, and finally, once this has been achieved, begin to work on making community college available for everyone.

Should President Obama’s tuition-free community college plan be approved, we would be skipping a vital step in our country’s journey towards improving, and hopefully perfecting, public education.


Jeffrey Chin


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