Phi Beta Cons

Why “Free” Community College Won’t Fix Anything

President Obama, Senator Bernie Sanders, and now North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper (who is running for governor) have all advocated for free community college.

In this article, the Pope Center’s Stephanie Keaveney examines how such programs work and whether they have any benefits.

She finds that the “last-dollar” approach already adopted by two states—Tennessee and Oregon—disproportionately benefits wealthier students who are already likely to enroll and succeed in college. That’s because last-dollar programs only kick in after a student has used her federal Pell grant, which is need-based.

But financial problems aren’t the real issue, writes Keaveney:

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of free community college is that completion rates at community colleges are already dismal. The guarantee of free tuition is unlikely to improve them. Nationwide, only 20 percent of first-time, degree-seeking students who enroll in community college ever earn a degree. The removal of all personal financial risk from attempting college does not incentivize students to complete their degrees. So far no program has proposed a safeguard against this issue.

Instead, community colleges should focus on giving students the flexibility and the tools to successfully complete a degree.

Read all of Keaveney’s suggestions here.

Jenna A. RobinsonJenna Ashley Robinson is the president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Before becoming president, she was the center's director of outreach. She was previously the ...


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