Free community college could boost education access

Tuition and education-related fees have steadily increased in recent years, and state governments have begun debating measures to reduce the cost of higher education. In Tennessee, Oregon and Mississippi, legislators have presented plans to make community college free for two years, which could increase access to higher education but requires high standards to prevent dropout rates from increasing.

The Tennessee Promise program, which will be implemented by 2015 if passed, would draw from the Tennessee lottery fund to provide qualified students with two years of free community college, according to the Tennessee government’s documents on the program, which is open to Tennessee high school applicants who attend county meetings. Each year, qualified students must complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, take 12 credit hours, maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete eight hours of community service to keep the scholarship. The scholarship expires after two years of community college, at which point students must graduate or begin paying tuition.

The biggest question is how this will be funded. The professors must still be paid, and if many high school graduates no longer have to pay tuition, the state governments have to set aside funds for the programs, and many have tight budgets as it is. Although Tennessee’s budget is surprisingly balanced compared to other states, Oregon’s and Mississippi’s are not, according to a June 2013 analysis by Washington, D.C.-based think tank The Tax Foundation.

The idea is solid—educating more people is not a bad thing, but it needs to translate into practice. The negative effects of not going to college have increased throughout the years—millennials who do not attend college are more likely to live in poverty than previous generations, according to a Feb. 11 Pew Research Center report. Making higher education more accessible may be a gateway to upward economic mobility.

Only 59 percent of college students at four-year universities finished their degrees in 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At two-year colleges, the graduation rate in 2011 was only 31 percent. If the free tuition program results in more dropouts, it will have failed, so the requirements should be more stringent than a mere 2.0 GPA and include community service to encourage students to perform better.

The American Council on Education opposes enacting these policies on a larger scale, stating that offering community college for free could decrease already falling enrollment at four-year universities. However, the argument is flawed in a number of ways. First, many students attend community colleges before transitioning to a four-year institution. Second, in many cases, community colleges do not offer the same quality of education as four-year universities, so those seeking an optimal education still have to look for more formal college programs.

Offering free community college would be a significant leg up for many low-income students. At an average cost of $3,264 per academic year, according to the College Board, the cost of community college can inhibit some capable but financially limited students from pursuing postsecondary education. Setting the GPA standard for free tuition higher would make sure capable students have goals to work toward and would help prevent increased dropout rates.

College is becoming more and more valuable, and as the cost increases, states making financial provisions for students show good judgment. Waiving tuition could be a stepping stone to economic mobility, a healthier economy and a smarter investment in the country’s future professionals.