Obama’s Free Junior College Plan Would Be Huge for Low-Income Minority Students

The plan could also draw in affluent white families, improving integration at community colleges.

From Air Force One on Jan. 8, President Obama proposes making two years of community college free for anyone willing to work for it. (Photo: YouTube)

Jan 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

President Barack Obama calls it “the centerpiece” of his education agenda, and you’re likely to hear about it in his State of the Union speech: a plan to make community college tuition-free, nationwide, for any student who qualifies.

The goal, the president said, is to create a globally competitive workforce for a high-tech, 21st-century economy, one in which a higher education is required just to apply. The president’s plan, however, could also reverse a disturbing trend of growing economic and racial segregation in the nation’s higher education system.

The rising cost of college, the erosion of affirmative action, and a widening class gap have created an expanding gulf between four-year colleges and their open-access, two-year counterparts, according to a recent study by The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. During the past two decades, researchers say, white students have all but abandoned community colleges, replaced by poor and minority students who don’t have the grades, the educational foundation, or the money to seek bachelor’s degrees.

That de facto segregation, according to the report, “is occurring at a time when a college degree has never been more important”—one of Obama’s key points in announcing the proposal.

Eliminating tuition for two-year schools “is in fact focusing in on lower-income minority students, and that’s right,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “But there’s another side to it,” and that’s the growing divide between four-year and two-year schools.

As open-door institutions whose origins date to the 1800s, community colleges educate nearly half of the nation’s 24 million college students at a tuition that’s about a third of the roughly $9,000 a year it costs for a bachelor’s degree. Besides career and vocational training, the mission of community colleges includes preparing high school graduates to move on to a four-year school and continue their education.

Despite the bargain-basement price, however, affluent kids outnumber poor ones 14 to one at most selective schools, while community colleges teach twice as many low-income students as high-income students, according to The Century Foundation. At the same time, more than 60 percent of community college students need some form of remedial education, at a cost of $2 billion a year. Yet while public-sector college funding went up by $4,000 per student between 1999 and 2009, funding for community colleges during the same time increased by just $1, according to the survey.

Even more troubling for community college advocates: Dropout rates at two-year schools have spiked as the graduation rates have fallen, according to The Century Foundation. Of the students who earn associate degrees or employment certificates, only 19 percent stay in school and earn a bachelor’s degrees.

“Eighty-one percent of students entering community college for the first time say they eventually want to transfer and earn at least a bachelor’s degree,” says the study, “but just 12 percent do so within six years.”

Here’s where Obama’s proposal could make a difference.

Writing in The Atlantic, education scholar Richard D. Kahlenberg suggests that making community colleges tuition-free could draw in more affluent white students. That “truly revolutionary” part of Obama’s proposal “would make two-year institutions more economically and racially integrated—something that should be applauded.”

Meanwhile, “the high interest [in Obama’s plan] suggests some middle-class and wealthy families whose children would have otherwise attended four-year colleges may be giving two-year institutions a second look,” Kahlenberg writes. “While some argue that free tuition for upper- and middle-class students is a waste of resources, in fact it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that community colleges are socioeconomically integrated. We have known since Brown v. Board of Education that separate educational institutions for black and white—or for poor and rich—are rarely equal.”

He’s not alone in that view. Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, writes on Washington Monthly’s education blog that free community college “sends a clear message that community college is an affordable option for all students.”

“Even though tuition and fees make up a small portion of the total cost of attendance—and it is unclear if all students will see additional savings from this plan—telling students early on that tuition will be free may induce more to prepare for college and eventually enroll,” he writes.

At the very least, Kelchen adds, Obama has started a dialogue about the high cost of a college education and directed a spotlight on community colleges, long the stepchild of higher education.

“We don’t know all of the details about the plan yet, but it is certain to generate a great deal of discussion in Washington and around the country,” he writes. “I’m looking forward to the conversation!”