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College enrollment declines highlight the need for Biden’s tuition-free community college plan


Edward Smith

Laura Perna

Laura Perna

According to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse, about 660,000 fewer undergraduates were enrolled in colleges and universities nationwide in spring 2021 than a year before.

Given the countless challenges of COVID-19, perhaps it isn’t shocking that a population about the size of Detroit has disappeared from the college rolls. But what should worry policymakers, education leaders, and employers in particular is what’s happening at community colleges, where undergraduate enrollment dropped 9.5%.

Typically, when unemployment increases, the opportunity costs of going to college decline and more people enroll. Community colleges attract displaced workers, adult learners, and recent high school graduates with their geographic accessibility, flexible schedules, and career-oriented and short-term programs. In 2017-18, 44% of all undergrads were enrolled in a community college.

Making community college tuition-free, as President Biden proposed when he unveiled his “American Families Plan” in April, is a solution that, if done right, would catalyze attention to the persisting barriers beyond tuition that prevent too many people from getting a college education.

The plan outlines a sweeping array of investments in childcare, education, and teacher training, and commits $109 billion to eliminate tuition at community colleges. In recognition that tuition is not the only hurdle students face, Biden’s plan pairs tuition support with a $62 billion investment in student retention and degree completion strategies, and $80 billion to increase Pell Grants.

According to pre-pandemic polling, the idea is a political winner, especially among younger adults and those without a college degree. A free community college initiative at the federal level could make more universally available the type of programs that have emerged in some states for recent high school graduates (Tennessee Promise and Oregon Promise) and adult learners (Tennessee Reconnects and Michigan Reconnects).

Some might dismiss these challenges as too big. We suggest that making community college tuition-free is a prime opportunity for policymakers and education leaders to accomplish five important goals.

First, it could reduce racial disparities in who gets a college education. Programs that provide free community college tuition have been found to increase college enrollment for Black and Hispanic students. Some education beyond high school is increasingly needed for “good jobs.” Yet access to higher education is highly unequal, as demonstrated by persisting differences in college-related outcomes across demographic groups. Without action, these differences in college access and degree completion will likely increase, given the disproportionate negative impacts of COVID-19 and the concurrent pandemic of systemic racism.

Second, a national initiative to make community college tuition-free would communicate a clear public message to all potential students that they may be able to afford the costs of college – and that they should consider attending.

Third, this policy could catalyze other efforts to address the systematic inequalities that limit educational attainment. Only 27% of first-time, full-time students who first enrolled in a community college in 2015 completed a certificate or associate degree within three years. This is an opportunity to ensure that more students who enroll finish and also facilitate transitions from K-12 to higher education, and from community college to a four-year university, without loss of credit.

Fourth, assuming that state and local governments at least maintain their support, this policy could ensure that community colleges have the resources needed to serve their diverse and historically underserved populations. When enrollment declines, tuition revenue and government funding based on enrollment also decline. Even before the pandemic, community colleges spent less per student than other institutions. Advising, academic support, and other wrap-around services can improve student outcomes, but they require resources.

Finally, this is an opportunity to reconsider the roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local stakeholders in providing high-quality, affordable, equitable, and accessible public higher education. Free community college could encourage a range of stakeholders to create a shared understanding that everyone should have access to “12 + 2” years of education. It is also an opportunity to systematically align resources available from other sources (such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, workforce training, etc.) to meet the needs and circumstances of adults and other learners.

Making community colleges tuition-free won’t be easy. As recognized in Biden’s plan – we will need to invest new resources. We will need to ensure these initiatives reduce costs for low-income students. And we will need a federal-state partnership that rewards states for their investments in higher education, compensates for differences in state wealth and other resources, and recognizes that state higher education systems and policies vary.

President Biden’s proposal to make community college tuition-free isn’t the only way to accomplish these goals. But it’s bold, it’s on the table, and Congress should act on it.

A well-designed federal initiative that partners with states to make community college tuition-free could encourage renewed attention to making system-level changes that address these seemingly intractable issues. Making America’s community colleges tuition-free could revitalize these institutions, ensure that employers have skilled workers, and enable people from low-income families and other underserved groups access to better jobs and the other benefits of a college degree.

Laura W. Perna is Vice Provost for Faculty and GSE Centennial Presidential Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Edward J. Smith is Program Officer with The Kresge Foundation. Perna and Smith are co-editors of Improving research-based knowledge of College Promise Programs (American Educational Research Association, 2020).