Community colleges are a crucial part of the higher education landscape. With nearly 1,000 institutions and over thirteen million students, they have an important mandate and offer a variety of affordable educational pathways for students, and especially for low-income learners. Unfortunately, President Obama’s free community college proposal misses the mark: it provides a solution to the wrong question, because tuition isn’t the problem.
Tuition and student debt have both risen significantly over the past decade, but the majority of this increase has been at four year universities and for-profit colleges. Prices have risen more modestly at community colleges and Pell Grants already cover the entire expense for low-income students. The problem for them is graduation, not cost.
The troubling reality is that half of students who begin their studies never finish, and that number climbs to 70% for low-income students. The Central Texas Education Profile from E3 Alliance reports that almost 4,000 students in Central Texas will start college and never finish. Tuition is the least of their worries — academics, confusing forms, and conflicts with employment are more likely to interrupt their studies.
As the executive director of PelotonU, a local non-profit that helps working students graduate, I walk alongside students determined to graduate — and the cost of tuition is not what holds them back. These students need flexibility, mentorship, and alignment between their studies and career, all of which are missing from the President’s proposal. Luckily, there are already organizations here in Austin building programs to ensure students have the necessary support.
UT-Austin has the University Leadership Network, St. Edwards offers the CAMP program, and Austin Community College provides a variety of student-centered services in their High School to College framework. In addition to financial support, each of these programs also provides mentoring, academic enrichment, and peer support which are all critical to ensuring graduation.
On the non-profit side, organizations like College Forward and Breakthrough Austin work with students from high school through college graduation to provide similar wrap around support that anticipates obstacles and increases the likelihood of graduation. And when existing post-secondary institutions prove difficult to balance with part-time employment, we at PelotonU provide a supportive education community for students earning their degree through an online university.
President Obama is shining a needed spotlight on the obstacles young adults face in earning a college degree. But to ensure students who want to graduate are able to reach their goal, legislators need to understand the underlying problems and reinforce proven solutions.