A new study asserts that providing free community college to students does not lead to increased four-year graduation rates, but proponents of free community college argue that that isn't the point of such programs.
The report, "Policies and Payoffs to Addressing America's College Graduation Deficit," by authors Christopher Avery (Harvard Kennedy School), Jessica Howell (College Board), Matea Pender (College Board) and Bruce Sacerdote (Dartmouth College), was released Thursday in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.
Using economic data from past higher education studies and enrollment and degree completion data from the College Board-National Student Clearinghouse dataset, the researchers analyzed four possible policies to increase bachelor's degree attainment: free community college, reduced tuition at four-year colleges, increased spending at public colleges and reallocating students to academically matched in-state four-year colleges.
They assert that the most effective ways to raise four-year graduation rates are to increase per-student instructional spending at public institutions and eliminate tuition and fees at four-year colleges for those below certain income levels.
The simulation showed a 3.1 percentage point increase in enrollment at four-year colleges if tuition and fees were eliminated for students from families who make less than $60,000 annually. It also showed that removing 10 percent of the per-student spending gap between four-year public and private institutions, and increasing per student spending by 10 percent at community colleges, raised bachelor's degree completion rates by 1.1 percentage points.
Michelle Miller-Adams, senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, doubts that investing modestly more at large public colleges would have much impact on graduation rates. But, she said research has shown that investing in coaching supports can have a large impact on completion, particularly at community colleges. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to clarify Miller-Adams's comments.)
A successful coaching model that includes advising and student support, along with free tuition, can be the keys to increasing completion, Miller-Adams said, citing studies of the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) and the Detroit Promise Path.
"Money is important and it makes a difference … but money's not enough," she said.
While reallocating students and reducing tuition at four-year colleges also increased completion, the researchers said that free community college "produces ambiguous results."
To have a positive effect on college attainment, a free community college policy would need to draw four new students who would otherwise not have enrolled in any postsecondary education for each student who would move from a four-year institution to a two-year institution.
In the simulation, however, researchers found the number of students who went from no postsecondary enrollment to two-year colleges was about the same as those who went from four-year to two-year institutions.
"I don't know that free community college programs entering into that conversation is completely logical," said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Student Assistance Corporation, which administers the Tennessee Promise Scholarship program.
Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar scholarship program for the state's community and technical colleges that also provides mentorship assistance.
The report also states that free community college programs wouldn't have a great effect on low-income students, who may already qualify to attend tuition-free with federal Pell Grants. But Krause said it's not that simple, as low-income students might not know what Pell Grants are or how to receive them.
This is where the Tennessee Promise, and its messaging, makes a difference. By telling students from kindergarten onward that they can attend community college free, low-income students are more likely to apply, he said.
Filings for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) increased by 15 percent, and 8,000 additional Pell Grant recipients have enrolled in colleges since the program's implementation in 2015, according to Krause.
"The power of Tennessee Promise is that free is a very powerful message," he said.
On the other hand, free community college programs increase "the proportion of high school graduates who complete a postsecondary degree," but the report states they do so "at the expense of B.A. degrees."
Emily House, deputy executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said that hasn't been the case in Tennessee.
"We haven't really seen too much undermatching," House said, referring to students attending colleges they are overqualified for. "What we have seen, though, is students who are on the margin of not attending at all choose to enroll because of the program."
Miller-Adams said it's also too early to know the impact of free community college programs on bachelor's degree attainment.
By "widening the funnel," Miller-Adams said that up to one-third of those students will go on to four-year institutions, "but that's down the road."
It's also not surprising that these programs don't increase bachelor's attainment, she said, because it's not their mission.
"Their mission is to broaden the base of who starts going to college in the first place," she said, oftentimes simply through messaging.
The report also states that the wage premium for baccalaureate degrees is enough to make them an "appealing financial investment," while the cost benefits of students who complete other postsecondary degrees is "unclear."
However, Marshall Steinbaum, senior fellow at the Jain Family Institute, said that is based on a "false economic premise."
While college graduates make more than those without a B.A. degree, Steinbaum said in a 2018 study for the Roosevelt Institute co-authored by Julie Margetta Morgan, this is only because wages decreased for those with only high school educations, not because wages increased substantially for those with college degrees.
Thus, the point of free higher education shouldn't be to increase attainment, but rather to "make that system less exploitative," he said.