How to Bring More Low-Income Americans to a Bright Future

Free community college was a good idea, but to truly help low-income students, we need to think bigger.

December 7, 2021

Perhaps you read the headline: “‘Down the hall’: Biden says Jill booted him from bedroom for dropping free college.”

In order to reduce the price tag of the president’s spending proposal, the Biden administration has reportedly dropped the idea of tuition-free community college.

According to The Wall Street Journal, opposition to two free years of community college came not only from for-profits and private nonprofits, but also from public universities, fearful that undergraduates would complete their first two years at two-year schools.

These institutions instead favor expanded Pell Grants, which would protect their enrollment and allow them to increase tuition and fees. But if significant numbers of prospective undergraduates spent their first two years at a community college, they’d lose out.

What should you and I think of this? Is this an example of narrow institutional self-interest eclipsing the public good? Or does the public universities’ stance hold water?

To answer these questions, I turned to one of the smartest, most knowledgeable scholars and seasoned senior administrators I know.

Alexandra Logue previously served as executive vice chancellor and University Provost of the City University of New York, the nation’s largest urban college and university system. CUNY’s 25 campuses include both two- and four-year institutions.

Her response is eye-opening and deserves to be quoted at length.

“As long as funding comes to the bachelor’s colleges as a function of enrollment, these colleges are going to do what they can to protect that enrollment. The incentive systems have to be structured for the behavior that you want, and many people don’t want the bachelor’s colleges to lose enrollment.

“Many people have talked about making the first two years of college free instead of making community college free. That would likely result in less objection from the bachelor’s colleges because such a system wouldn’t be likely to drive students more to the community colleges. Which would be good for reasons other than college incomes.”

Logue continues, “As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, until transfer is really and truly fixed, and community colleges are better resourced, in many cases a student who wants a bachelor’s should start in a bachelor’s program (and not be lured away to a community college by free tuition) because they will then be more likely to graduate. So I think it’s really unfortunate that the plan was only to make community college free.”

In today’s highly stratified and hierarchical system of higher education, community colleges serve half of underrepresented students of color and a disproportionate share of the students with greatest financial need. In addition, two-year institutions play an outsize role in serving parents and adult learners.

A majority of community college students come from the poorest half of the population, compared to just a fifth at most four-year institutions. These are the students most likely to suffer food and housing insecurity and a lack of access to health care, including mental health support. They are also the students most likely to attend school part-time.

Why do these students go disproportionately to community colleges? The explanation is obvious: lower cost, open access, geographical proximity, job-aligned curricula and an institutional focus on students with work and caregiving responsibilities. Many are first-generation college students, and some, in consequence, don’t even know the difference between community and bachelor’s colleges.

The big problem at two-year institutions isn’t access—after all, for most low-income students, community college is already tuition-free, thanks to federal Pell Grant funding and various promise programs.

The real problems are threefold:

  1. Nonacademic impediments. Many of the challenges that community college students face are rooted in economics. Programs like CUNY’s ASAP demonstrate that the biggest barriers to success at two-year institutions include the cost of childcare, transportation and textbooks. ASAP and similar initiatives also reveal the need for more high-touch support services and corequisite supplemental instruction. Yet, even though ASAP doubles associate degree graduation rates, only CUNY’s community colleges and a handful of others have implemented this program.
  2. Underfunding, a challenge worsened by recent cuts to state funding. Even though community colleges serve the most economically disadvantaged students, resource constraints result in spending substantially less than four-year institutions on instruction, student support and other student services. Per-student expenditures at community colleges are, on average, nearly 30 percent less than at public master’s institutions and 65 percent less than at public research universities. One result: a greater reliance on part-time adjunct faculty and on instructors without a terminal degree.
  3. Barriers to transfer. These barriers include delays in transcript evaluation, credit loss, poorly aligned curricula, inadequate transfer advising, course unavailability and unreceptive and unsupportive four-year campuses.

As Logue makes clear, unless these three obstacles are addressed, community colleges’ ability to serve their essential functions will always be hamstrung.

The underfunding of community colleges is part and parcel of bigger problems within our educational system:

  • A regressive approach to spending that fails to adequately fund vocational, technical, applied and career education.
  • Differentials in spending that significantly privilege students who can afford to attend a four-year college or university full-time.
  • A willingness to treat the distribution of students across class lines as a reflection of talent, ability, merit and work ethic.

If our goal as a society is to encourage a far larger number of students to earn a bachelor’s degree, we need to remove the many obstacles—financial as well as academic—that stand in the way.

If, on the other hand, we believe that a decent standard of living should not require a four-year degree, then we, as a society, need to support multiple pathways that will provide people with the skills and credentials they need to succeed in their chosen field.

Either way, far greater investments in community college need to be a part of the answer. If President Biden wants to return to the bedroom, I’d urge him to consider scaling proven approaches, like ASAP, a comprehensive program to help students earn an associate degree within three years by providing financial, academic and personal support, and expanding CUNY’s Pathways initiative, which helps ease transfer between two- and four-year institutions.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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