Guest post by Jonathan Hasak

President Obama’s bold proposal to offer free community college is a potential game changer for millions of students. Unsurprisingly, the proposal, which the president said would cost $60 billion over ten years, has already drawn a range of critics. But one criticism in particular—that by making community college universally free, the federal government would be mostly reducing the cost for higher-income families—misses the point entirely. 

Drawing more students from higher-income families would help reinforce—not hurt—our currently troubled community colleges.

Rescuing Our Economy, by Rescuing Our Students

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 45 percent of all undergraduate college students are enrolled at a community college. Yet, data produced by the National Student Clearinghouse shows that only 40 percent of such students completed their programs over the course of six years. (The National Center for Education Statistics puts the completion rate even lower, at 31 percent.) 

This high dropout rate is particularly troubling, because our system of community colleges is geared toward preparing students to participate in a changing economy. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has found that the majority of students in American community colleges are in occupational programs. Significant failure by this sector can result in an unprepared workforce, meaning not only do individual workers suffer, but so does our economy as a whole. 

The president’s plan to invest in community colleges as a pathway to the middle class has the potential to help more young Americans shore up their skills en route to becoming gainfully employed. This is a welcome change of course, considering the share of young people enrolling in any college has begun to decline, and student loan debt has surpassed a trillion dollars

Yet, critics are cautioning that the president’s proposal would be mostly a help to less-needy students, because low-income applicants may already be covered by Pell grants and other federal aid. After the president announced his program, two members of Congress from Tennessee—Representative Steve Cohen, a Democrat, and Representative Diane Black, a Republican—remarked that the program, modeled after Tennessee’s own, would be helping more-affluent students rather than those with greatest financial need. 

As Richard D. Kahlenberg points out in a new Atlantic article, however, attracting more affluent students to community colleges might actually be one of the best parts of the president’s program. 

The Reasoning behind Socioeconomic Integration

In order for community colleges to become a legitimate pathway for upward social mobility, they should be attracting higher-income students. Currently, as researchers from Teachers College at Columbia University have shown, over half of community college students come from low-income families. 

This should change, for several reasons. 

First, as the highly influential Coleman Report demonstrated nearly fifty years ago, the strongest predictor of student achievement was the socioeconomic composition of student body. And indeed, educational research continues to show that poor students in mixed-income schools do better than poor students in high-poverty schools. 

Incentivizing higher-income students to attend community colleges would lead to mixed grouping of students, which has proven most effective at raising academic performance. Such a mixed grouping of students would in turn diversify the social capital of its student body, individually and as a whole. 

And with an improving job market, skills will continue to serve as the global currency of twenty-first-century economies. While critics might not want the federal government to subsidize the cost of education for middle-income families, a more evenly distributed socioeconomic makeup in community colleges, as a 2013 Century Foundation task force concludes, would actually help all students position themselves for more-successful futures. 

Second, it is a simple fact that money follows money, particularly when it comes to education. With a more socioeconomically diverse student body, community colleges could expect to acquire greater financial resources. These resources could be used to renew their campuses with updated, high-tech facilitates. By demonstrating that they can be first-class institutions, community colleges can attract students looking for a cost-effective way to acquire skills that have real currency in today’s labor market. 

The Political Calculation

In hoping to address income inequality, the president is attempting to revive community colleges as a driver for economic growth—and betting that enough Republicans can see past the partisanship that has consumed so much of the nation’s potential. 

The president stated that universal access to community college shouldn’t be a Republican or Democratic issue, but an American issue. In that regard, he is correct. Critics should certainly have an opportunity to know the actual costs for states participating in this program. And while fiscal conservatives in the Republican-controlled Congress are unlikely to agree to more federal spending, it behooves elected officials first to take a deeper look at who will benefit from the president’s program before making a final decision.

If, it turns out, the program helps more middle- and higher-income families attend community college, then, as the president said, this proposal would benefit everyone, not just some.


Jonathan Hasak works in the Boston Public Schools’ Office of Data and Accountability, and is writing a book about how to make education reform bipartisan. He has written for about reimagining career and technical education for American Educator and about making academic skills feel relevant to students for Education Week.