The Bold Idea of Free Community College Tuition

Published jan. 11, 2015

5 Key Principles for Policymakers to Keep in Mind

President Obama’s proposal to expand recent state efforts to make two years of community college available tuition free is a bold move that could help improve life prospects for as many as nine million Americans. Increasing affordability reduces a major barrier to college access and completion, which are vital to increasing individual economic mobility and the economic health of our country. 

Jobs for the Future focuses on helping underprepared youth and adults succeed in postsecondary education and family-supporting careers. Through our work in developing innovative dual enrollment, career pathway, and workforce training models, we’ve learned what it takes to design and scale up effective strategies.

As states consider the many ways that they might structure free community college tuition, we offer some important principles to help maximize this opportunity and make the best use of taxpayer dollars.

1. Make certain that financial assistance covers the full cost of attendance
Tuition represents only one-fifth of the total cost of attending college. Coming up with solutions to help cover these additional costs, especially for low-income students, ensures that every student truly can afford college. We also urge that this support does not come at the expense of other education and workforce programs.

2. Build community college capacity to meet growth in demand
Community college funding has remained stagnant for years, increasing on average by only $1 per student since 1999. Policymakers need to ensure that state and federal resources for community colleges increase to help them meet the needs of more students. Efforts should also include strategies for aligning community college offerings with the needs of the regional labor market. 

3. Provide robust academic and student supports for underprepared students
It’s estimated that 60% of students entering community colleges require some type of remediation. Expansion of innovative competency-based models to move students more quickly through developmental education courses is needed to meet increased demand. Career navigation systems and counseling services should be enhanced to ensure students can make informed education and career choices based on labor market information and other key facors.

4. Expand programs designed to increase completion rates
Increasing college completion rates is equally as important as expanding enrollments; currently, only 40% of community college students complete a program within six years. Dual enrollment programs that partner community colleges with high schools show significant promise in increasing college persistence, as do career pathway models that align programs of study with employer needs. Let’s expand these proven strategies to help more students complete college.

5. Measure outcomes to understand what works
Solid data collection strategies are needed to measure the impact of free tuition on student outcomes. It’s critical to give community colleges the resources they need to effectively and efficiently gather and report this data.

JFF applauds the President and policymakers for shining a spotlight on the urgency of doing more to help Americans afford the education they need to succeed. We look forward to a robust dialogue about the details and to working in support of these goals.