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Does Free Community College Grow Enrollment?

Kevin Cook June 2, 2016

This post is the first in an occasional series examining how California can learn from policies in other states.

Tuition-free community college has garnered increasing political support over the past two years. In his recent budget requests, President Obama proposed legislation entitled America’s College Promise to make community college free nationwide. Three states—Oregon, Minnesota, and Tennessee—already have free community college programs, while nine more are considering legislation to create similar programs.

Supporters say that making community college more affordable will increase enrollment and graduation. But will free community college increase overall college enrollment, or will it merely shift enrollment from four-year colleges to two-year colleges?

Policy: Tennessee’s College Promise
Tennessee’s College Promise program—the model for the federal America’s College Promise program—offered its first scholarships to students starting college in the 2015–16 academic year. This program is part of a larger effort to increase the state’s percentage of college graduates from 32% to 55% by 2025.The program provides “last-dollar” scholarships that cover the remaining cost of tuition after a student has used all other available federal, state, and local grant and scholarship aid. Funded by state lottery revenues, Tennessee’s College Promise program will cost an estimated $12 million and provide scholarships to nearly 15,000 students in its first year.

Policy Impact
Initial results suggest that free community college may shift enrollment, rather than growing enrollment. According to an article in the Tennessean, community college enrollment rose by nearly 14% following the program’s implementation, while enrollment at the state’s public four-year institutions decreased. At the University of Tennessee at Martin, enrollment declined by 13% in one year. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga also saw declines in freshmen enrollment, while two nearby community colleges saw dramatic increases.These preliminary results run counter to national trends, which have shown a shift in enrollment away from community colleges to public four-year institutions since 2010.

Lessons for California
California’s community colleges play an essential role in our higher education pipeline. They often serve non-traditional and underserved minority students, and provide workforce training to help students ascend the economic ladder. If providing free community college increased enrollment and graduation, this could lead to higher earnings, more tax revenue, and reduced demand for social services in the state.

But there’s a chance the policy could limit degree production. According to our research, students who begin their postsecondary career at a four-year college are much more likely than those who enroll at a community college to earn a bachelor’s degree, even when controlling for student characteristics. For example, students from low-income families who begin at a four-year college are, on average, two to three times more likely to finish their bachelor’s degree, regardless of their high school GPA.

Other approaches to making college more affordable might have a bigger impact. In California, two-thirds of students already receive free tuition, and about 90% of the cost of attending community college comes from living expenses. Increasing state awards for non-tuition educational costs would be a logical step to improve student access and educational attainment. The Cal Grant B access award currently provides low-income students with up to $1,656 to help pay for items like books, housing, and food. If funding for this award, which started in 1969–70, had kept up with inflation, it would currently by worth over $6,000, nearly four times its current value.

Compared to other states, California ranks 47th in sending our high school graduates to four-year colleges. Improving access and affordability is vital, but California should make sure that policies also increase students’ likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree, so that more individuals have the opportunity to realize the myriad benefits—economic and otherwise—that these degrees confer.

Figure source: Author’s calculations based on logit regression models using College Futures Foundation student data. Students followed for six years. Data and methods available in Technical Appendix A of the report Making College Possible for Low-Income Students.

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