President Biden’s proposed U.S. Family Plan would cut tuition fees at public community colleges for two years. While the concept of free tuition sounds well, in practice the community college system is so bad that more money in the form of federal student aid would at best do little to help schools or their students.

Over the past century, as increasing numbers of Americans sought access to higher education, community colleges have been hailed as an economic institution that provides human capital and social mobility. However, since their inception, community colleges have been wracked with contradictions.

Originally called the “junior college”, this establishment was designed by executives limit access to higher education. The students were classified into two groups: a small cohort of high performing students were ready to transfer to four-year universities so they could earn a bachelor’s degree and embark on a professional career. The vast majority of students, however, were “chilled”, diverted from higher education and ready to enter the workforce as mid-skilled workers.

Local communities, inspired by the promise of the American dream, attempted to reshape this discriminatory institution into a tool for increasing social mobility, community organization and regional economic development. They renamed it a “community college,” but they were only partially successful in fixing this broken institution.

Yes, community college tuition is cheap. Your typical state college or university charges around $ 10,500 for a year of tuition and fees, while most state community colleges charge less than $ 4,000 per year. With various types of financial aid, most students pay less than $ 1,000 per year for community college tuition, with about 44% of full-time students paying nothing at all. The expenses, however, are still high for many students: even when they don’t pay tuition, they still have to pay over $ 1,000 a year for books, plus transportation, accommodation, and other costs. subsistence. That’s why about 80 percent of community college students have jobs, with about 40 percent working full time. The majority of students, almost 65 percent, attend school only part-time.

At the same time, although the goal of 80 percent of community college students is to move on to a 4-year college for a bachelor’s degree, the vast majority will never graduate. For decades, only about 30 percent of community college students transferred to a college or university each year, and of those students, less than half graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years. In a typical year, only about 14% of freshmen entering a community college will complete their bachelor’s degree in six years. High-income students are much more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than low-income students. Free classes will probably not change that either.

The free tuition fee will also not change the fact that very few community college students will ever be truly prepared for college. While most community college students graduate from high school, many have graduated from high school without ever having acquired basic reading, writing, or math skills. About 60 to 70 percent of community college students take at least one “basic skills” remedial course, with the average student taking about 3 remedial courses, mostly in math and English. While 76 percent of less advantaged students need remedial classes, even the majority (59 percent) of wealthy students need remedial classes. Less than half of students will complete all of their remedial courses, and for those who do, those courses offer no college credit.

Since community colleges have never been adequately funded, the so-called ‘higher education’ that these institutions provide to students, especially the most academically needy, is often nothing more than a second chance in a high school. Community colleges have less trained teachers, most of whom are paid pittance on short-term contracts. They have fewer essential resources than four-year colleges: support staff, tutors, financial aid staff, counselors, librarians, and books in the library. They also have less of a college community on campus. Two years of free schooling won’t move that needle either.

If Biden and the Democrats were serious about reforming higher education and helping the most disadvantaged students, they would abolish community college altogether. Rather than a free community college, our nation must divert more resources to underserved high schools in poor neighborhoods, while giving four-year state colleges and universities the appropriate resources to fully educate all students equally. .

As Brown vs Board of Education Established over half a century ago, separation is never equal. And yet, despite the promise of equality for all, elitist, multi-tiered systems of higher education with unequal funding and resources are still not examined and challenged in America. Each attempt to reform or expand community colleges has increasingly legitimized the status quo, leaving America’s most disadvantaged students further and further behind.

Despite the grandeur of Biden’s proposal, a “free” college for all, it is too little too late, and it will not fix community colleges, nor help many students.


Written by JM Beach.
The references:
* JM Beach. Gateway to opportunity? A History of Community College in the United States. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, 2011.
* Community college faqs. Community College Research Center. Columbia University. 2021.

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