June 9, 2021

Pitfalls of Democrats' "Free" Community College


  • President Biden has proposed spending billions of taxpayer dollars to make free community college tuition widely available to students, regardless of their financial need.
  • The Pell Grant program already makes community college tuition free or low-cost for needy students.
  • Making college “free” could boost enrollment at community colleges, but it will not ensure students succeed.

President Biden’s budget calls for spending $109 billion over the next 10 years to make community college tuition “free.” This sweeping proposal would be widely available to first-time students or workers who want to learn new skills, regardless of their financial need. It is not clear that all states would choose to participate in the new national program. Making community college “free” could steer more students to these institutions, though they might otherwise have chosen a different one for various reasons. It would not fix problems that keep some students from succeeding and getting the degree they set out to earn.

Pell Grants already help needy students

The president’s free community college plan purports to remove a financial barrier and increase access to higher education. Because his plan would make free community college universal, it could spend a lot of taxpayer money on students who are capable of paying for their own education. For low-income students, tuition at two-year colleges already can be free or low-cost thanks to federal Pell Grants. The average Pell Grant recipient at public two-year colleges received $3,946 in the 2019-2020 school year. According to the College Board, typical tuition and fees at these schools varies by state, but the overall average was $3,700 that year. The organization has noted, “On average, first-time full-time students at public two-year colleges have been receiving enough grant aid since 2009-10 to cover their tuition and fees.”

How much money students receive in federal Pell Grants depends on their financial need, their school’s cost, and whether they go to school full time or part time. For the upcoming year, the neediest Pell Grant recipients are eligible to receive a maximum award of $6,495. The president’s budget includes an increase of $1,875 in the maximum Pell Grant, though Congress has boosted the grant in recent years through annual discretionary appropriations bills, after mandatory increases in the program expired. In 2017, Congress also reinstated “year-round Pell,” which provides extra money to help students stay enrolled throughout the year.

Pell Grants Make Community College Tuition-Free for Many Students

With Pell Grant Community College is Already Free

Some states have their own programs to make college tuition free at two- or four-year schools, often by covering costs after factoring in Pell Grants or other aid. States also offer additional grants and scholarships, as do schools and other organizations. If all of these options, plus income from jobs, are not enough to cover tuition and living expenses, students can also take out federal student loans. Most federal student loan borrowers owe less than $20,000 in loans.

problems persist despite “free” college

Some congressional Democrats have proposed a free community college program in which the federal government would match $3 for every $1 in state contributions; they say President Biden’s plan follows this model. States would not be allowed to charge students tuition or fees, and they would have to maintain certain levels of higher education funding. It is unclear whether all states would even want to participate, because enrollment and tuition rates vary from state to state but the federal share would be based on the average tuition across all states. One education expert recently noted in the New York Times that states such as California, where tuition currently is low due to state subsidies, would benefit more than states such as Vermont that have higher tuition.

Government budget constraints could be a problem, too. The American Enterprise Institute found that funding for Ireland’s free college program increased and decreased as the country’s economy grew and contracted, which may have damaged educational quality. Student-to-faculty ratios have gone up and schools have reduced support services such as counseling. In California, funding cuts due to the 2008-2009 recession led community colleges to reduce staff and offer fewer classes, sending thousands of students onto waitlists for classes. More recently, pandemic-induced budget pressures caused states to cut higher education funding, including for two-year colleges.

Students go to community colleges to get an associate’s degree, for training to help them switch or advance in their careers, or as a steppingstone to a bachelor’s degree. A 2018 report for the Brookings Institution said that in general, community colleges have experienced persistently low completion rates. Department of Education data show that just one-third of students who started a certificate or associate’s degree at a two-year school in 2016 completed it within three years, and 41% dropped out. Students may not finish because they are juggling school with work or family responsibilities, have trouble adjusting to college, are not yet prepared for college-level work, or other reasons. Most community college students attend part time and work while going to school. Many are older and are the first in their families to go to college.

Another problem the Government Accountability Office has documented is that students may lose course credits when they transfer to another school. This costs students time and money having to retake classes. It may be one reason why few community college students end up going on to complete a bachelor’s degree, even though they may want to. Some schools have been working to improve things for transfer students, especially following the disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The president’s plan includes $62 billion in grants for states to improve student retention and completion at their colleges and universities. Like the rest of the president’s plan, this would add substantially to the cost to taxpayers. It also would increase federal involvement in state and local education decisions.

Some education experts are concerned that students who are academically prepared for a four-year school and more likely to succeed there may be drawn to community colleges instead. In contrast, Pell Grants follow students to the school they choose to attend – whether it is a public state university, private four-year school, or a community college – which gives them flexibility and choice. Others in the education field worry that community colleges might be overwhelmed with a sudden influx of students, resulting in full classes and a poor experience for students.

Issue Tag: Education