Free Community College and the Pursuit of a Dream
by Myron T. Strong - March 21, 2022
Inspired by the Biden infrastructure bill that originally included free community college initiatives, this essay explores the value of community colleges by examining both sides of the debate. Ultimately, concluding that regardless of what side you are on, if we want a truly fair society with true equal of opportunity, there must be free access to public education.
Making community college tuition-free has been a salient idea, especially as states and higher education institutions look to recover community college enrollments while expanding workforce training efforts. Free community college is an initiative supported by President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, initially included in the Build Back Better legislation, albeit now removed. This set of commentaries include a piece by a community college president in Tennessee, a state thats credited with a very successful free community college program, along with an impassioned argument from a long-time community college faculty member that free community college can be instrumental for making sure, to paraphrase Langston Hughes, that dreams are no longer deferred for those who have historically been excluded by higher education. This weeks commentaries are another reminder that we should be considering the multitude of voices and positions inside community colleges when policy making is at stake.
-Robin G. Isserles and David Levinson
In the poem Harlem, Langston Hughes asks a poignant and soulful question: What happens to a dream deferred? This question explores the lack choice in the decisions many have in their lives and what happens when people are not allowed to live out their dreams. To me, this is the essence of the current debate surrounding whether community colleges should be free. I have been a part-time or full-time community college professor for 11 years, and while I have seen students accomplish amazing things, I have also consistently seen great students struggle to pay tuition, buy books, and, ultimately, finish. Bidens infrastructure bill recently removed the provisions that would have created universal free community college, which would have marked a major step forward not only in education but also in addressing many persistent socioeconomic problems. There are many perspectives, but whatever side people align with in the free community college debate, in a truly fair society, with true equal opportunity, there must be free access to public education. Community college is public education, and the access it provides to those historically ignored is invaluable.
FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE: A RADICAL IDEA
The idea of free education is not a new one, and, in this historical moment, it seemed poised to pass under Bidens infrastructure bill. According to the American Council on Education (2021), President Joe Biden presented his infrastructure bill to Congress. An essential part of the bill includes a $109 billion higher education program to support a fully funded education at a community college. He also asked for $46 billion for historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges, and other minority-serving institutions. Of this total, $39 billion would go toward supporting up to two years of tuition subsidies for families that qualify, $5 billion to expand capacity in high-demand fields at these schools, and $2 billion to develop a pipeline of skilled health care workers.
Although this is important, the most significant part of the bill sought to provide resources desperately needed by many community college students. In my experience, students at community colleges typically work 2040 hours a week (many, if not most work, full time) and often balance work with family obligations while enrolled in college. The bill addresses these needs by including a separate $62 billion grant program that would provide funding to colleges that adopt innovative, proven solutions for student success, including wraparound services ranging from childcare and mental health services to faculty and peer mentoring; emergency basic needs grants; practices that recruit and retain diverse faculty; transfer agreements between colleges; and evidence-based remediation programs, according to the Fact Sheet: The American Families Plan (2021).
Regarding Pell Grants, the president proposed $85 billion to increase the maximum award by approximately $1,400 and allow Dreamers to access the aid. Added to the $400 increase in the administrations FY 2022 budget proposal, this would bring the maximum award to $8,295 a year. While it is well short of doubling the Pell Grantpart of the presidents campaign platformthe administration called this provision a down payment on that promise.
OPPOSITION TO THE FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE PLAN
Despite the obvious benefits to the population, the plan failed and was removed because some could not be convinced of its merit. Speaking about the issue on the PBS News Hour (2021), Margaret Spellings, secretary of education under George W. Bush, doubted the plans viability largely based on the on the number of students who take remedial courses. In her estimation, this creates dropouts (though she never used the word) who never finish an associates degree or technical certificate. In her view, it would be better to boost the Pell Grant and allow students to use their purchasing power to choose where to go. She values traditional four-year institutions and believes these institutions offer significant advantages for students.
CRITIQUES TO THIS PERSPECTIVE
Using traditional metrics of student success to measure success at community college presents several problems. First, one cannot view community college success through the same lens used for four-year institutions. Community college students often take longer to finish their degrees, in large part because many attend part time and work through courses of study much more slowly. The six-year graduation pattern may not be sufficient, given the enrollment patterns of community college students, who fluctuate between full- and part-time status because of their work and family obligations. Chen (2021) cited the National Center for Education Statistics, which showed that only 13% of community college students graduate in two years. This percentage increases at three years (approximately 22%) and further at four years (28%). These numbers suggest that traditional methods of measuring completion within academia may be not sufficient when analyzing community colleges.
In addition, many community college students transfer to four-year institutions before they complete their associate degree, and this is not often accounted for in the data. In fact, 1/4 of all college students who begin at a community college go on to a four-year institution, and of those, 60% graduate with their bachelors degree.
SUPPORTERS OF THE FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE PLAN
Another obvious critiqueone of the main reasons that some students do not finishis the lack of resources, according to John King, secretary of education under Barack Obama, on PBS News Hour (2021), King posited that President Bidens plan makes sense if we are serious about supporting the educational and economic mobility of our most disadvantaged groups. King believes that the bill offers a mix of approaches that will help build a stronger economy. He noted the 2008 job recovery, during which there was a boom in jobs that required individuals with postsecondary training, including certificates, vocational training, and associates and bachelors degrees.
Currently, 17 states offer free community college programs. King noted that it was Tennessee Republican governor Bill Haslam who first offered a free community college program. This commitment to equity reflects the understanding that if we want to educate our nations citizenry, not just improve graduation rates, we must make it easier for students to acquire skills and knowledge that are not limited to career skill-building. It is worth noting that a full 20% of PhD-degree holders took courses at a community college.
SOME LINGERING QUESTIONS
There are lessons to learn and lingering questions. Community colleges depend largely on contingent labor, especially adjunct teaching staff, who are paid disproportionately lower than full-time staff, often without health care provisions or job security. When I was an adjunct professor, I was rarely given the opportunity to teach during the summeremployment I very much needed at the time. Yet, I could not draw unemployment because it was deemed a reasonable assertion that I would be contracted for the fall. This made the summer months unbelievably difficult while I was pursuing my graduate work; many times, I was not assigned classes to teach in the fall, and I had no recourse. If we aim to expand access, we must ensure that we also expand the full-time teaching staff. Equity cannot be sought if inequity abounds.
In addition, hidden factors that limit students access or success must be eliminated. For example, New York has been lauded for offering tuition-free college to eligible students via a scholarship program called the Excelsior Program. However, several restrictions lie beneath the veneer, including GPA requirements, consistent full-time enrollment, exclusion of fees beyond tuition, proof of parental income, and a requirement to stay and work in New York for the same number of years of the tuition award. This has led to an exceedingly small number of community college students benefitting from the program.
WHAT DREAMS MAY COME
Community colleges are vital to the education of the country. Rowell (2010) estimated that around 45% of all undergraduates, including 46% of all Hispanic students, 45% of all American Indian students, and 44% of African American students, are enrolled in one of the countrys 1,132 community colleges (Horn & Nevill, 2006; Kapitulik et al., 2016).
The infrastructure proposal could have radically shifted the academic and economic opportunities for so many, but there is a chance to revisit and address the less visible factors that may limit its effectiveness. One thing that community college students need is flexible, easily accessible programs.
So, referring to Langston Hughess Harlem, I do think that it's instructive to understand what happens to dreams that are deferred. We should support free community college for many logical reasons, but our understanding should go beyond these. If we want to live in a society where people have meaningful access, options, and choices, it means embracing the spiritual value of equity. It also means being brave enough to do what is necessary to address our nations troubled histories of systematic oppressions and injustices that have allowed dreams to dry, rot, and crust over.
American Council on Education. (2021, May 3). Free community college is centerpiece of Biden administrations latest infrastructure plan. https://www.acenet.edu/News-Room/Pages/Biden-Infrastructure-Plan.aspx
Chen, G. (2021, October 21). The catch-22 of community college graduation rates. Community College Review. https://www.communitycollegereview.com/blog/the-catch-22-of-community-college-graduation-rates
Fact Sheet: The American Families Plan (2021, April 28). https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/04/28/fact-sheet-the-american-families-plan/
Horn, L. and S. Nevill. (2006). Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Education Institutions: 200304: With a Special Analysis of Community College Students (NCES 2006-184). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Kapitulik, B. P., Rowell, K. R., Smith, M. A., & Amaya, N. V. (2016). Examining the professional status of full-time sociology faculty in community colleges. Teaching Sociology, 44(4), 256269. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X16662694
PBS News Hour (2021, June 8). An argument against free community college tuition. [Video]. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/an-argument-against-free-community-college-tuition
PBS News Hour (2021, June 9). Why this former U.S. education secretary believes community college should be free. [Video]. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/why-this-former-education-secretary-believes-community-college-should-be-free
Rowell, K. R. (2010). North Central Sociological Association Presidential Address: The Community College Conundrum: Pitfalls and Possibilities of Professional Sociological Associations. Sociological Focus, 43(3), 16718