Tuition-Free Community Colleges and the Law of Unintended Consequences

A detailed look at President Obama's plan

On Jan. 9, President Obama announced the America’s College Promise proposal, an initiative which, if adopted and funded, would make an estimated nine million students eligible for an average of $3,800 per year in tuition assistance at community colleges throughout the nation, for an estimated cost of $60 billion. (“Fact Sheet: White House Unveils America’s College Promise Proposal: Tuition-Free Community College for Responsible Students”)

Modeled after programs in Tennessee and Chicago, the proposal is closely linked to other initiatives of the Obama presidency, including increases in the maximum value of Pell Grants; the expansion of education tax credits; pay-as-you-earn loans (wherein loan payments are capped at 10 percent of income); and so forth, all designed to address the president’s call for increasing the percentage of the adult population with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from today’s level of approximately 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020.

Presumably, most Americans would agree that having a more broadly educated workforce is a good idea, and arguably an economic necessity. However, there is no shortage of differing opinions on how best to reach this goal (or even if it can be accomplished).

The announcement of America’s College Promise created what Yoda from “Star Wars” might call “a disturbance in the force.” The blogosphere exploded, and dozens of lengthy postings (and many hundreds of comments to the postings) occurred on the very day of the announcement. (See, for example, “White House Plans to Take Tennessee Promise National,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 9, 2015.)

A quick and unscientific survey of the articles and accompanying opinions leads me to conclude that opposition to the president’s initiative is widespread and deeply entrenched. Much of this opposition centers around the relationship between the program’s cost and its anticipated benefits: some argue that the return on investment is too small and uncertain; others are vehement in opposing any increase in public investment in higher education, holding that the individual student should be responsible for the cost of his or her education.

I am troubled to find myself allied with people with whom I share little in common, politically or philosophically: as proposed, I think it is a bad idea. I take some solace, however, in noting that my reasons for opposing it are quite different from most of the naysayers. I am opposed because I can predict with some assurance that, if enacted, the initiative will immediately open a door to the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Let me explain. A number of states have, over the past decade or two, initiated programs not unlike America’s College Promise, insofar as they have created highly subsidized access to community colleges for some high school graduates, the precise number of which varies from state to state. Surprisingly, there is no reference to the extensive history of state-based initiatives in the official announcement from the White House on Jan. 9. Instead, the President’s plan references a tuition waiver model in Tennessee that does not start until next fall. In other words, the White House, rather than looking at the successes, failures and lessons learned from states that initiated similar programs in recent years and decades, instead links the federal initiative to a state program that currently has no results to review or analyze.

In a previous life, when I served for 13 years as the president of a public university in New Jersey, I had a front-row seat as a similar project was rolled out in that state in 2004. The New Jersey model gave a scholarship to attend community college to high school students who graduated in the top 20 percent of their class. The scholarship covered the full cost of tuition and fees for up to five semesters. The state senator who proposed the program intended it to serve as an inducement for students from economically disadvantaged communities (several of which he had in his district) to attend college.

As his bill was being introduced, I met with the senator to lobby for two amendments. First, I argued that the benefit should be limited to individuals with family incomes below a certain level (say, $100,000). Otherwise, I was concerned that relatively wealthy families from affluent cities and towns would be seduced by the availability of the scholarship into sending their children – who were otherwise academically eligible to attend any number of public and private colleges and universities – to the community colleges. The senator told me that, in an ideal world, he would have proposed an income cap, but had he done so, he felt he would not have received support from those of his colleagues in the legislature who represented wealthy districts for which an income-capped program would provide little or no benefit. Besides, he said, affluent families would not be inclined, for reasons of prestige, to send their children to a community college, since they could afford to send them to a four-year school.

My second argument was to allow eligible students to use their community college scholarship as a voucher at any public or private university in the state. If a student wanted tuition and fees to be fully covered, he or she could attend a community college. However, if that same student wished instead to use the dollar equivalent of the community college scholarship at a four-year New Jersey school, and pay the balance of that school’s tuition out of his or her own pocket, he or she should be free to do so. No, said the senator – that would result in too many students taking advantage of the program, making it too costly for the state.

Readers of this blog might reasonably conclude that I argued for these programmatic changes out of self interest: presumably, I was fearful that students would attend community college instead of enrolling in my four-year university, and that would be damaging to my university’s finances – or perhaps I just didn’t want to have a significant portion of our undergraduate student body comprised of community college transfers.

I’ll try to persuade you that my motives were pure. At the time, my public university enjoyed a growing academic reputation, and we had thousands more applicants than we could possibly accept. Therefore, I was confident about recruiting a strong freshman class, even if the community college scholarship program went forward as originally planned. Moreover, we already had a very large population of community college graduates who transferred to my university for their junior and senior years; the possibility of even more transfers was not a concern.

Rather, my concern was that high-achieving students (remember, the program was limited to students in the top 20 percent of their high school graduating class), who were otherwise eligible for many relatively high-quality public and private colleges, would instead choose to attend a community college for which they were clearly overqualified. And the danger of making that choice was that they might jeopardize their likelihood of graduating with a bachelor’s degree.

In the end, both my fears proved justified. It proved not uncommon for families with annual incomes in excess of $200,000 to enroll their high-achieving children in community colleges, just to save $8,000 or $10,000 (at $2,000 to $2,500 per semester for two years). The popularity of the program among relatively high-income families made the program sufficiently costly to the state that the qualifications of the students entering the program soon had to be raised from the top 20 percent to the top 15 percent of the high school graduating class. Fewer low-income students therefore qualified, negatively impacting the goal of increasing college attendance and graduation of the very students the sponsoring senator had in mind when he created the program in the first place.

But the program also opened the door to the Law of Unintended Consequences: the program reduced graduation rates. Historically, New Jersey students graduating in the top 20 percent of their high school class entered four-year colleges and universities, rather than attending community colleges. The six-year graduation rate at most of these colleges and universities is over 60 percent.

In New Jersey’s community colleges, however, the three-year graduation rate (for the associate’s degree) has, for many years, hovered near 20 percent. The explanation for such a low figure (and that number is even lower in many other states) is that, as open-admission institutions, community colleges serve many students with very weak academic qualifications.

So the question was, how would high-achieving high school graduates fare at community colleges, in terms of their graduation rates? Three years into the program we had an answer: the graduation rate of the first cohort of students was 41 percent – higher than the traditional community college students, to be sure, but well below their peers who had gone directly to the four-year schools.

Moreover, that 41 percent graduation figure is for an associate’s degree. To compare the two groups of students properly, we must estimate the six-year graduation rate for community college graduates who transfer to a four-year university and subsequently graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

Not all of the community college graduates transferred, and not all those who transferred graduated. We will err somewhat on the high side if we estimate that 80 percent transferred, and 80 percent of those graduated. So with those figures in mind, the six-year graduation rate of the students who had finished high school in the top 20 percent of their class, but started at community college, was (41 percent x 80 percent x 80 percent ) = 26 percent!

In short, relatively affluent parents who sent their high-achieving students to a community college, in order to save a few thousand dollars, more than doubled the chance that their child would not graduate with his or her bachelor’s degree (as compared to the students who went directly to a four-year college or university). That is not a result that served either the student or the state of New Jersey well – and it is a result I fear will be replicated if President Obama’s America’s College Promise proposal is implemented as currently planned. Based on the results from New Jersey, I predict a somewhat larger number of associates’ degrees, but significantly fewer bachelors’ degrees – hardly the outcome the nation needs, if we are trying to grow our knowledge-based economy.

No student of ability should be denied the opportunity to attend college because he or she lacks the financial resources to do so. To the extent that financially needy students would be helped by the President’s proposed program, it is worth consideration. However, ever mindful of the Law of Unintended Consequences, I urge Washington to examine the results of similar programs at the state level, and adjust the details accordingly, so as to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

My suggestion? Use the $60 billion cost of America’s College Promise to expand the Pell Grant program. Raise the current income limits, to allow more middle-class families to qualify, and increase the size of the individual grants. Let qualifying students use the grants at the college of their choice.

(In closing, I should note that the New Jersey program that started in 2004 was amended in 2006, 2008 and 2012, as the state continued to tinker with the details. An income cap was eventually imposed – but at $250,000 of annual family income, it excluded only five percent of New Jersey families!)