Q: Chris, I contacted you after reading your blog post, “Free Tuition Could Solve Community College Enrollment Problems,” on the New America Blog. Why do you think free is a solution?
A: The skyrocketing cost of college is one of the most significant obstacles access to and completion of college studies. Any efforts to make college affordable, especially those involving free tuition plans, will help increase enrollment. But let’s step back and contextualize this current moment.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, community college enrollment has fallen by nearly 17 percent. These declines in enrollment were particularly pronounced for Black male and Native American male students. Given this, and the fact that community colleges serve more than half of all undergraduate students from low-income families, declining community college enrollment threatens to compound pre-existing issues educational inequalities.
Despite these national trends, recent registration data of Maine suggest that free community college tuition can stabilize community college enrollment. Only four months after the announcement of the Free university scholarship– which covers 100% of tuition and fees for recent Maine high school graduates to attend one of the state’s seven community colleges – Maine community college enrollment is up 12% from the previous year. This increase reflects the findings of previous research who found colleges with free tuition significant increases in enrollment compared to neighboring colleges with no free tuition. Importantly, free tuition plans are associated with particularly large enrollment gains for Black and Latino studentswhich makes free community college a promising strategy for both increasing enrollment and advancing racial equity in higher education.
Free tuition at community colleges would have a positive impact on many students, but it will not in itself prevent students from going into debt or fully offset the racial and economic inequalities inherent in higher education. But there is incredible power in the simplicity of the free college message that can motivate students to enroll, or re-enroll, at the university. The value of this cannot be ignored. While a free community college will not solve the higher education affordability crisis, it is a powerful and relevant strategy to ensure that more people can access college. For this reason, higher education leaders and advocates must work to make community colleges free as a first step to ensuring that all Americans can afford a higher education.
Q: The readership of Inside Higher Education comes largely from the higher education sector. What role can college and university leaders play in advancing policy issues related to making colleges more affordable?
A: College and university leaders can play an important role in making higher education more affordable by advocating for policy change at the state and federal levels. Higher education leaders are uniquely positioned to advocate for change, as they can translate their students’ experiences into meaningful examples of what works and what doesn’t on college and university campuses. . By leveraging student experiences, sharing data that captures relevant trends on their campuses, and translating academic research into actionable action, higher education leaders can influence policymakers to craft legislation that makes college affordable.
To make community colleges free, it would be particularly effective if higher education leaders and scholars from different disciplines worked together to build comprehensive arguments for tuition-free plans. Economists, sociologists, education policy researchers, and historians may all have different reasons why community colleges should be free, and the different perspectives on this issue may spur relevant policymakers to action.
Q: What are some best practice examples of how higher education leaders have engaged with state and federal elected officials to make community colleges free?
A: Higher education leaders can more effectively advocate for a tuition-free community college if they relate the importance of free tuition to the current situation we face. When we look to New Mexico to see how they recently enacted free tuition at all two- and four-year institutions in the state, we see evidence of advocates — including leaders of the higher education – linking the need to make university tuition free with the hyper-relevant debate around COVID-19 induced labor shortages. In doing so, New Mexico advocates were able to build a broad base of support for free tuition, as residents across the state understood the need to increase labor supply and saw how free tuition at colleges and universities could help prepare more people to enter the workforce. .
If higher education leaders can connect research on the benefits of free community colleges to topical debates — like economic recovery from COVID-19, solving labor shortages, and improving the economic mobility of low-income people – they will be well placed to help make community free college a reality across the country.
Mary Churchill is Professor of Practice and Director of the Higher Education Administration Program at Boston University, where she is also Associate Dean. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in Times of Crisis.