Yes, Free Community College is Not Free: 10 Questions to Deepen the Conversation

Ever since President Obama made a public challenge to pursue a plan for two free years of community college, the most frequent critique has been that it is not free. Someone has to pay for it. I appreciate healthy debate, but I’m not sure any informed citizen thought it was free in the sense that there would be no cost associated with it. We all know that public P-12 education is not free. Current community college tuition certainly does not reflect the full cost of operating such schools. The same is true for four-year state schools. Government funding is the dominant strategy for keeping the teaching and learning arm of these schools operating.

What President Obama meant by two free years is that it would be no or extremely low-cost to the students, removing one potential barrier to young people pursuing higher education. Once we move beyond straw man arguments, then we can have candid conversations about whether we can afford such a proposal, the potential return on investment, how it would impact 4-year institutions, and other important considerations.

As I see it, the most important critiques of the proposed plan relate to questions about whether this is the best solution to a social need that requires more clarification. As such, it is time for us to have public, deep, and substantive conversation and exploration of other questions. Here are ten to get us started.

  1. If the primary objective is to increase access to more education for more people, to what extent is cost the largest barrier to increasing access and opportunity to formal education?
  2. What other barriers exist that would not be solved by reducing cost?
  3. What plan(s) must be considered to address all the top barriers, implementing them together with the goal of increasing the likelihood of success?
  4. Is this mostly about decreasing the debt burden of those who would already go to college? If so, what if we start with a long, creative list of possible solutions? The idea of two free years of community college is bold and intriguing, but we want to move forward after being well-informed and having a plan that is likely to give us the best chance of accomplishing our goal. Let’s start by lengthening our list of possibilities far beyond one.
  5. While starting the national conversation with a specific proposal is a great way to prompt discussion, is it time to step back, clarify, and list our primary objectives? If we don’t do that, how do we measure our progress and success? Let’s start with the end in mind, and build our list of the possibilities means from there.
  6. How are current students performing in community colleges? If we drop the cost and send more people to under-performing institutions, what good would that accomplish? Or, are there exemplary models of high-performing community colleges that might need to be modeled and replicated for something like this to work?
  7. What are more of the possibilities for increasing access, opportunity, and gainful employment? There are hundreds of options. Let’s get them on the public table and explore them together.
  8. Who are the people and what are the organizations that are already doing amazing work this area? What insights can we glean from them?
  9. To what extent can informal, “outside-of-school” and other options help us make significant progress with such goals? The US is a wonderfully entrepreneurial country. It only make sense to tap into that mindset to address some of our most pressing challenges and pursuing our most valued goals in education. Education companies and startups might play a valuable role in some of the most promising solutions. How can we nurture an entrepreneurial ecosystem around addressing more access, opportunity and gainful employment needs?
  10. If the two free years of community college turns out to be the most promising way of accomplishing the measurable goals (that we still need to establish), what are the possibilities for various funding models?

There are dozens of other questions, but this list will help us deepen the conversation while embracing the spirit of President Obama’s challenge.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.