Higher Education Expert Responds to Personal Finance Website WalletHub's Queries 

With the cost of higher education in the U.S. continuing to soar and more Americans seeking degrees these days, community colleges are filling the demand that traditional four-year institutions are failing to meet. But they face new challenges as a result. For further insight into such concerns, WalletHub asked a panel of leading experts to weigh in with their thoughts.

1036 AISR's Angela Romans, Co-Director of District & Systems Transformation weighs in.

Do you think Obama’s proposal to make community college tuition free will increase enrollment and graduation rates?

Though an important and laudable step forward, the policy by itself is unlikely to increase enrollment and graduation rates without additional supporting practices. First, the majority of students attending community colleges have low or modest family incomes that qualify for Pell grants, already giving them access to free tuition. Many of them, unfortunately, do not apply for federal aid – according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, only 61% of community college students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) – so they miss out on tuition funding dollars largely because of the dearth of education and advising about the aid process or the daunting nature of the FAFSA. Creating more financial advising opportunities for prospective/current students and simplifying the necessary application forms would strengthen the President’s proposal.

Second, in conversations with college access and success organizations across the country, advisors indicate that for many community college students, books, transportation, food, and other more “hidden” costs of attending college end up tripping up students, causing them to drop out and not complete their degrees. This is especially true for students who are working full time, caring for families, and/or taking longer than the two years the President’s proposal would cover to complete community college. Pell grant-qualifying students could use the proposal to shift Pell grant funding toward some of these costs, but only if they apply for Pell grants – see above. To increase graduation rates, free tuition policies also need to include ways to address these other, very real financial stumbling blocks for low- and moderate-income families.

Finally, the policy could be a boon for higher income students who see tuition-free community college as an opportunity to access a rigorous education for two years before transferring to a four-year college, thus significantly reducing their college debt. Currently, though, 44% of low-income students attend community colleges as their first postsecondary institution, compared to only 15% of higher income students, so wealthier students are not getting that message. Why not? For the President’s policy to boost community college enrollment and graduation by recruiting more higher income students, we would need an honest conversation about what it would take for community colleges to be seen as a strong potential pathway to high-quality education and careers for everyone across the economic spectrum, not just some.

What can policymakers do to improve the quality of education and training at community colleges and the career prospects of graduates?

One step would be to help students navigate their education pathways through community college with more focus and support. According to Complete College America, the average associate’s degree requires 60 credits, but the average student takes 81 credits to attain that degree. Through policy changes that create “meta-majors” for undecided students, increase intrusive advising, and better align math courses to student majors, many colleges are improving the quality of students’ education experiences and increasing graduation rates.

Another policy recommendation is to incentivize local businesses to train and retain students through internships and post-graduate hiring. Here in Rhode Island, a 2011 survey showed that graduates from local colleges were twice as likely to stay in the state after college if they interned with a local company. Building on these results, the Governor’s Workforce Board created the RI Work Immersion Program to reimburse employers 50% of the cost of a paid internship for a local college student, and an extra 25% for hiring a former intern into a permanent position after graduation. Policies that partner local businesses with community colleges can help improve education and career prospects by grounding what students learn in the classroom with opportunities to apply that learning in the real world.

Should community colleges focus more on preparing graduates for the workforce - through career and technical education - or on preparing graduates to move to a 4-year college?

These two concepts are not mutually exclusive; community colleges need to focus on both. Adults with 4-year degrees on average have higher degree attainment rates and lifetime earnings, so community colleges help boost overall economic development when their students are prepared to move onto and graduate from bachelor’s degree granting institutions. However, the majority of community college students do not complete their educations in a linear trajectory from high school to full-time college to workforce. Because students are engaged in any combination of taking courses full time, stopping out, working, coming back part time, working again, etc. toward their ultimate education attainment, community colleges must also strive to prepare their students with the education and technical skills necessary to enter the workforce at any point before, during, or instead of attending a 4-year college.