The False Promise of Tuition-Free Community College

Low-income students need comprehensive financial aid to make it to graduation

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When my kids were little, my nephew would greet them with a high five that wasn’t meant to actually land where you’d think. You know the “game”: Gimme five (hand is extended); up high (hand is held too high); down low (hand is held too low); too slow (hand is quickly withdrawn—little cousins squeal).

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That’s what the free or very low tuition “deal” reminds me of—but in this case no one is giggling.

According to a new report released by the Institute for College Access and Success, students that attend California’s community colleges—which charge the lowest tuition in the country—still struggle to make progress toward graduation.

College expenses beyond tuition and long waits at the financial aid office undermine the efforts of needy students to pursue a degree. Food and housing insecurity, not being able to afford gas or textbooks, and the need to work emerged as common themes in the report.

“With limited hours in the day, the trade-offs between work and school are crystal clear for students, and research confirms that having to put work first makes them much less likely to reach their college goals. When financial aid helps cover costs beyond tuition, students can spend more time in class and studying instead of working longer hours to pay the bills,” said Debbie Cochrane, TICAS research director and primary author of the report. “Even with free or very-low tuition, students are facing serious financial challenges that undermine college affordability and completion.”

Nationally, tuition makes up only 20% of the total cost of attendance of a full-time community college student. In California, tuition is waived for all low-income and many moderate-income students, but like my nephew’s game, the aid isn’t quite landing where it’s intended. OK, maybe the analogy breaks down. In this case, it isn’t stretching far enough.

About 12,000 students from across the state responded to the TICAS survey; some 4,400 shared personal stories about their struggles to get an education, such as:

  • “Financial aid helps me so much; however, I still am homeless because it is not enough to pay for housing, even if you work part time.”
  • “I need gas and food to get to school. I have to pay credit card bills—plus interest—for the gas, food, and school supplies I purchased on a high-interest credit card when there was no financial aid money.”

The TICAS report includes policy recommendations, including offering comprehensive financial aid that would cover the total cost of attending community college. Otherwise, tuition-free community college may bring more people to enroll but does little to enable low=income students to actually graduate.

For more information about TICAS, go to its website.



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