One unavoidable fact of American life is that the college you attend plays a big role in determining your future prospects.
Perhaps that’s an unsurprising revelation—as with other big decisions, it is important to choose wisely. As costs for attending more selective schools continue to rise, however, the kind of higher education Americans pursue has become less a matter of choice and more a factor of the amount of money they have.
But if Congress passes President Obama’s plan to make community college free for every American, we may be able to reduce those discrepancies.
Writing recently in The Atlantic, my colleague Richard Kahlenberg argues that the way Americans choose where to attend college has the nasty side effect of creating socioeconomically segregated student bodies. Those with more money flock toward private and public four-year institutions, while poorer students attend the less expensive two-year schools.
As Kahlenberg notes, this mission of serving low-income students is a point of pride among community-college educators and administrators.
But the lack of diversity also creates a vicious circle of stagnation. Without a substantial number of high-performing middle-class students, these colleges’ political clout is reduced, which can lead to funding cuts and other changes. Without adequate resources, academic standards decline, making these schools less appealing. This, in turn, decreases the overall value of a community-college education, and further discourages middle- and high-income students from attending.
As this hollowing out of the value of a community college education continues, its impact increasingly falls on a narrower band of the economic spectrum: the poor.
Compounding the problem, low-income students desperate for alternatives increasingly are turning to for-profit colleges—and their notoriously predatory student loan practices—as my colleague Suzanne Mettler points out in her recent book, Degrees of Inequality.
The Obama Administration plan would, for starters, counteract what Mettler argues is a the growing influence that the for-profit education industry wields among federal lawmakers.
But the true genius of the plan may be that, by making community college entirely free, it will change the mental calculus for students deciding what kind of college to attend.
A year at community college is already about 62 percent less expensive than one at a four-year public university. But if the difference were 100 percent, an honors student who would have attended, say, Florida International University, might decide it’s worth the savings to attend Miami Dade College instead.
State and local governments are already implementing similar programs, with promising results. Obama noted that his plan, far from an exclusively liberal proposal was modeled after a program recently launched in conservative Tennessee, which will make community college in the Volunteer State free for any student who applies, provided they maintain a 2.0 GPA and perform eight hours of community service per term. A stunning 90 percent of Tennessee high-school seniors have already signed up to participate (though fewer are ultimately expected to take advantage of the grants).
The federal version of the program would be an order of magnitude larger. But if it becomes law, free community college could well become the most enduring legacy of the Obama presidency.