President Obama has made a bold proposal when he wants to have community college tuition free for all but is it really in everyone’s best interest? Really?
Consider that the community college completion rate is around 34% nationally. That means that 66% of students start but do not complete. That means that at this time 2,804,305 started community college in the fall but 1,794,755 of them will not achieve a degree. Now on the good side that means that close to a million students will achieve a degree and that is good of course but fare too many do not complete their program. And some of the 1,794,755 will transfer before getting a degree but the numbers are still bad on graduation.
Most community colleges have not yet found the solutions to attrition at such high levels. Granted some of it is from students who just are not really prepared for college study. They will simply walk away or flunk out. That’s just the facts of it. But hundreds of thousands of others will not complete. That is a sad fact too.
The tuition proposal only takes care of one part of the cost of attending community college. It does not cover fees, books, daycare, transportation and other associated costs. Considering that a great many of the poorest students get their tuition already covered by Pell and other grants such as state programs, there is no great benefit to them with the President’s program. I fear that by increasing the size of the pool all that will be accomplished is to increase the number of students who will fail in their attempts to succeed. This will leave them in a worse situation that they were in before. They will have expended their savings on fees, books and associated educational costs and end up defeated until the problem of attrition is taken care of in community colleges. .
The tuition free education would kick in after Pell money pays for what it can cover. For most students, the Pell money is taken up by tuition so there is no full benefit for them. If the free tuition was not including Pell, then there could be some befit by freeing up the Pell money to pay for associated costs other than tuition.
Before universal tuition is offered there are core issues that need to be taken care of and where the money could be better spent.
One of the reasons that there is high attrition in community colleges is that there just are not enough coaches and counselors to meet with all the students who need them. There are not enough retention programs either. Programs such as at Hostos Community College in the Bronx have developed programs that are successful through making sure that every student in the program gets to see or hear from a counselor/coach at least once a week. That creates ways to keep the student realizing that the school does care about them as well as solve problems that do arise. This program has an extremely high success rate and could be emulated with the right amount of money made available. Counselors and coaches would be a better use of the money for start.
Another reason for attrition is that community college students are often hesitant and tentative students. It does not take much to turn them off from school and we have found that colleges seem to do all they can to turn them off. In general, they provide very bad customer service to the most needful of the services. These services are the coaching mentioned above for example and just basic customer service such as treating students kindly and being helpful. It has been an eye opener for us as we work with schools to see how many allow absolutely weak to poor to abominable treatment of students by the school. Just talk to most students about how they have been treated in offices and the resulting complaints are overwhelming. Yes, there are some schools that care and we have worked with most of them to increase their retention but there are thousands of others that haven’t a clue as to how to treat students as if they mattered more than their tuition.
And that is another reason why free tuition is not necessarily a good idea. Many too many colleges will take free tuition as a sign that they can raise their tuition and bring in more money. Yes, they need more money but it should not be from increasing tuition. It should be from retaining the students who are already attending and paying tuition. If the community colleges could keep more of their students, they would retain more tuition and revenue. They are losing 64% of it a year as it is now. To offer free tuition will just encourage schools to raise tuition and not do anything about retention.
President Obama certainly wants to help more people get a college education but this may not be the way to do it.
If this article makes sense to you, get a copy of the latest book by Dr. Neal Raisman From Admissions to Graduation: Increasing Success Through Academic Customer Service