The idea of free college has been gaining a lot of attention this presidential election cycle, with both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns integrating the concept into their platforms. Just over a year ago, in 2015, President Obama proposed making two years of community college free through the “America’s College Promise” program. Some states have already implemented free community college, including Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota.
These programs are a remarkable step toward making college more affordable and accessible. But affordability and accessibility do not equal completion. If our goal is providing the opportunity for all individuals, regardless of age, race or class, to receive a world-class education and training for life and career, we need better pathways to help students complete. Otherwise, free college is somewhat moot.
According to data from the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, 28 percent of students seeking an associate’s degree from a community college graduate within three years. Even at four-year schools, completion rates are lackluster. Students seeking a bachelor’s degree have a graduation rate of 58 percent at public institutions, 65 percent at private nonprofit institutions and 27 percent at private for-profit institutions. This data is alarming. What good is free college if up to nearly three-quarters of students never finish?
In research from Public Agenda, students have spoken of several factors that inhibit their success, including full-time employment, dependent children, weak academic preparation and college affordability. Other research indicates that many college practices inhibit a student’s chance for success. Students’ academic pathways may be confusing, they may receive inadequate guidance or they have difficulty transferring from a community college to a four-year school. Diminishing these barriers can dramatically increase completion.
For example, schools can work to create environments that are more engaging for students. Research from the Association of American Colleges and Universities indicates that students who are academically and socially engaged during college are more likely to graduate. A student is academically engaged when he or she interacts with faculty and finds learning meaningful. Social engagement refers to participation in campus activities and multiple connections with other students.
Many students have challenging schedules and responsibilities outside school that make enhanced engagement more difficult, so it’s important for schools to choose deliberate approaches to meet students where they are.
The way schools design and structure courses can also create barriers for students, especially when courses lack clear outcomes or student support. In particular, redesigning “gateway” courses — those foundational courses nearly all students take in their first year — can reduce drop-outs, failures and withdrawal rates. Research from the Pell Institute indicates that students who return for their second year of college have a higher chance of graduating. If a student is successful the first time taking a course instead of needing to repeat a course, they will be able to move toward their certificate or degree faster and at a lower cost.
Transferring from a community college to a four-year school also trips up many students. While it’s true that a four-year degree isn’t and should not be the only pathway to a better life and career, in recent research from the Community College Research Center, the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse, 80 percent of students enrolling in a community college say they plan to get a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet many students find it frustrating or impossible to transfer between two- and four-year institutions, often losing credits, time and money in the process. States and institutions need to create better transfer procedures and identify a general education core that is accepted by all institutions.
Finally, it’s important to note that all of the free community college programs currently enacted are limited to recent high school graduates, even as more and more individuals are returning to school later in life to earn a college certificate or degree. This trend will likely increase, given that estimates suggest that nearly 70 percent of all jobs will require some kind of post-secondary training, certificate or degree by 2020.
Free college is a giant step toward improving access, and it’s an easy rallying cry. But free college will not inherently lead to more college graduates with well-paying and stable jobs. Higher education leaders and experts need to think beyond “free college” and help colleges and universities create a stronger completion culture. While the solutions above are not as amenable to sound bites, these are the real solutions that will help more students complete a meaningful degree.