• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Setting Free

Thoughts on Kevin Carey's proposal for how to make free community college work.

April 13, 2021

“Provide a standard per-student grant to any [nonprofit] college that agrees to charge $0 tuition.” -- Kevin Carey, “A Different Approach to Free Community College”

Kevin Carey has a useful piece up about how to actually engineer a national program for free community college. It’s worth reading if you haven’t seen it.

He starts with outlining some of what makes a national program difficult. Different states fund community colleges at wildly different levels, with some providing more operating support than tuition does and others (such as my own) offering less than tuition. If the feds were simply to pick up the check for tuition as it stands, they would be effectively rewarding the states that provide the least. That’s not ideal from a policy standpoint.

That observation is true, as far as it goes. But the situation is more complicated than that. Some states have their community colleges rely on local funding as much as, or more than, state funding. New Jersey does that through county-based funding, and some Midwestern states do it through dedicated property taxes approved by referendum. It’s one thing to impose a “maintenance of effort” requirement on a state Legislature; it’s quite another to impose it on the voters of a given county or district. That tends not to be true of “state” colleges, but it’s often true of community colleges. Ignoring the local variable could lead to all manner of shenanigans.

To Carey’s credit, he uses students, rather than full-time enrollments, as the preferred measure of enrollment. Actual head count comes closer to capturing the cost of production; part-time students often require as much support as full-time ones, even if they’re taking fewer classes.

Still, I couldn’t help but come away from the piece concerned. If the per-student grant is set too low, many places would be compelled either to opt out or -- what I consider more likely -- to impose even greater austerity on community colleges than they already have. As a sector, we had only partially recovered from the Great Recession when COVID hit; a third round of austerity could be fatal. Austerity would also defeat the purpose; free access to an eviscerated institution isn’t terribly helpful.

Experience has also taught me that dollar figures set as supports tend not to move quickly enough over time. (For example, when I graduated high school in 1986, I was offered a New York State Regents Scholarship that had been long set at $250. Even then, $250 wasn’t enough to sway a decision.) When costs increase but support doesn’t, and tuition is off the table, then we’re looking at service cuts. Any dollar figure would have to be indexed, at a bare minimum, to the inflation rate for services. With colleges unable to control their own tuition, they would need to be able to rely confidently on adequate funding from outside. The funding would need to be able to survive changes of political party control and swings in the economy. As bad as flat or declining funding is now, colleges at least have the option of increasing tuition and/or fees to partially offset the loss. Take that option away, and funding cuts would become far more damaging.

Ideally, the per-student rate would be set at parity with the average per-student spending at public four-year colleges. I have yet to see a coherent principled argument why our students are worth less. Parity between sectors -- just parity! -- would be a major step forward.

As with any funding tied directly to enrollment, declining enrollment brings with it the loss of economies of scale. I’d advocate for separating the money into two pots, in a variation on what was done with CARES. One pot would be a direct institutional subvention to support the basics that any college should have; the second could be tied to enrollment. That first pot would reduce the damage from cyclical enrollment declines and would allow for meaningful long-term planning. The second would vary with demand.

This may sound institution-centric, but there’s a reason for that. That’s what we do with K-12 to make it free for students. If we want to provide K-14 free, then we need to be willing to make some structural changes that go beyond just providing scholarships.

Scholarships, of course, would make a good interim step. They could provide a bridge for a few years while we work out the institutional changes. But ultimately, unless we look at the institutions themselves, we’re playing a losing game.

Thank you, Kevin Carey, for pointing out that it isn’t as simple as it seems. That’s true. All the more reason to get right to work.


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