President Barack Obama’s proposal for free community college education comes at an important time. Our regional, state and national economies rely upon well-educated and productive workers. An associate’s degree or certificate offers a gateway to socio-economic advancement for an increasingly diverse and disenfranchised population. Free public education through Grade 14 is smart, affordable and the right thing to do.
Free post-secondary education has precedent. Community college tuition in California was free until 1984. Undergraduate education at the public colleges and universities in New York City was free for many years. Budget constraints ultimately rendered these models unsustainable.
Can evidence inform policy decisions? Recent data from the American Association of Community Colleges tells us that 45 percent of all undergraduates in the United States attend community college. Thirty-six percent represent the first generation from their families to attend college. Fifty-six percent of all Hispanic and 48 percent of all African-American students in higher education are enrolled in community college. Most are adults from low income families. They are primarily local residents who study part time at community college, and endure significant financial hardship to graduate with a degree or certificate. Affordable tuition is a problem.
Community colleges have comprehensive missions. Their purposes have grown. Yet public funding has not kept pace with enrollment growth, and the needs of local employers and residents.
Many such institutions began as junior colleges. As such, they offered a traditional liberal arts curriculum and transfer agreements to four year colleges and universities. In the aftermath of World War II, the Truman Commission report on higher education called for broader access to higher education for veterans, and recognized the relationships between well-educated adults, socioeconomic gain and a vibrant democracy. This vision was realized through unprecedented founding of community colleges in the 1960’s and 1970’s, most of which embedded career and workforce development within their core mission.
Career education is now an essential component of community college programs. Associate degrees and certificates are offered in fields such as business administration, registered nursing, respiratory therapy, courtroom stenography, computer science, mechanical technology, law enforcement and forensics. Displaced workers often attend community colleges to develop skills needed for employment in other occupations with higher employment demands.
Many community colleges offer customized job training programs in collaboration with company and labor union partners. Noncredit skills-based workforce development courses are available for those who need supplementary knowhow.
Two-year public colleges are the primary safety net for students who graduate from high school, but are neither college nor workforce ready. This is evidenced by large numbers of enrolled students who must take one or more remedial courses in math, reading and/or writing before matriculating. An estimated 60 percent of community college students in the United States are enrolled in such courses. While I was president of the Community College of Allegheny County, approximately 10 percent of our annual budget, or $10 million, supported developmental education.
Recent data informs us that $56.8 billion dollars in total revenues support our nations’ community colleges. An average of 29 percent comes from student tuition. Average annual tuition and fees at community colleges were $3,260 for full time in district students, and averaged $8,890 at public four-year colleges for in-state students. Tuition at community colleges in Pennsylvania ranges from a low of $91 to a high of $153 per credit hour for local students.
We can better appreciate the financial implications of tuition prices through the lens of the students. Most are working adults who study part time. One person’s bargain may be a formidable cost to another. Expenses include textbooks, stationary supplies, transportation (most students at community colleges commute), lost income while studying and child care. A laptop computer, nowadays considered a necessity by most college students, is often unaffordable.
Tuition-free community college won’t cure all shortcomings in public education, but it is a good beginning. Much can be done to frame state and federal education policy to improve the effectiveness of public education. The Middle College program at the Boyce Campus of CCAC, in collaboration with school districts Woodland Hills, Penn Hills, Gateway and Plum, offers one exemplar of success in realizing vastly improved high school graduation and college enrollment rates for at risk students.
Bravo to President Obama for throwing down the gauntlet. We must develop bipartisan agreement on education reform, and improved learning and financial models. Are we prepared to invest in our future? Do we understand that more employed higher paid wage earners repay this investment through increasing income, property and sales tax revenues? Stated differently, the ultimate cost of failure to act decisively and thoughtfully in our own self-interest will be borne by all.
Stewart Sutin is a clinical professor of administrative and policy studies at the University of Pittsburgh and former president and CEO of the Community College of Allegheny County.