Free Community College for All, but Completion for Just a Third?

young man on college campus stepsIn his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama called for free community college for all responsible students “so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.” In his proposed budget, President Obama allocated $60 billion to support the program over 10 years. Why is the president going all in on community colleges? One likely reason is that, by 2020, two out of every three jobs will require some postsecondary education, while today only about 46 percent of adults have a postsecondary credential. Offering free community college would help close this gap, but the effort will be seriously undermined without drastic improvements in community college effectiveness.

Critics of the President’s proposal are quick to underscore the abysmal completion rates at community colleges. Only a third of first-time beginners at two-year institutions completed a 2- or 4-year degree within 150 percent of the time expected. As David Brooks argued in the New York Times, “We don’t need another program that will lure students into colleges only to have them struggle and drop out.” Presumably, struggling students and non-completers would also end up facing some tuition bills, based on the community college proposal’s requirement that students maintain a 2.5 GPA and stay on track to completion in order to have their tuition waived.

If, however, we were able to substantially improve community college effectiveness while boosting enrollment, the benefits would be clear. The majority of first-generation college students attend community colleges. Boosting community college completion rates would mean a potential rung-up on the economic ladder for many families, and greater social mobility in the nation. In addition, more dislocated workers could successfully take advantage of the opportunity to retool their skills and earn economically beneficial credentials.

But what can we do to boost completion rates at community colleges? A recent Child Trends report I co-authored sheds some light on potential answers. The report, sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, focused on finding social indicators that predict college completion. We discovered that, among first-time students starting at 2-year colleges, several predictors were associated with a 50- percent or greater increase in the odds of degree completion after taking into account demographics, high school experiences, and other factors. These positive predictors of completion were: transferring schools (remember, many students transfer from a 2-year to a 4-year school to obtain a bachelor’s degree), earning higher first-year college GPAs, talking to faculty outside of class, making an additional $10,000 in annual income, and selecting a major in the first year of college. On the flip side, predictors of non-completion included starting as or becoming a part-time student, and having a child while enrolled.

These findings suggest that, to increase completion rates, community colleges should consider testing out approaches that foster engagement between students and faculty, encourage full-time enrollment, provide help structuring courses of study and schedules for both full- and part-time students, and offer wraparound supports, like affordable child care located on campus.

In our report, we also strongly backed the development of early warning and intervention systems for colleges to identify and provide additional supports to students who start to fall off the graduation track. Looking at 4-year college students, we developed a simple, but highly effective, risk indicator for non-completion. We flagged students as at-risk of dropping out if they demonstrated two or more of the following characteristics: had a child, were not satisfied with undergraduate education, became part-time, started part-time, had less than a C average, transferred one or more times, or attended a non-selective school. More than 75 percent of 4-year students flagged with the indicator failed to complete, and the indicator identified more than half of all 4-year non-completers. We expect that community colleges, with access to individual course-level data each semester, could develop systems with even greater sensitivity and specificity.

Importantly, the President has called for improving the quality of community colleges in concert with making them free for all responsible students. The Administration’s plan states that community colleges must adopt “promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.” The plan cites the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which provides a range of financial, academic, and personal supports to students, along with special class scheduling options to foster college completion. A recent evaluation found that 40 percent of ASAP participants earned a degree, compared with 22 percent of the control group.

Although the evidence base regarding strategies to improve college completion is still developing, organizations like Complete College America, the University Innovation Alliance, and the Community College Research Center have put a lot of good thought and effort into thinking through ways to increase college completion rates. Finding effective approaches to boost community college completion rates will likely play a big role in determining the success of the Administration’s push for free community college.

Daniel Princiotta, consultant to Child Trends, principal research scientist at Bethesda Policy Research

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