In January 2015, President Obama unveiled his America’s College Promise proposal to make two-year technical schools and community colleges “tuition-free” for high school graduates. Speaking at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, the President argued that free college was only the logical twin of free high school. America owed its 20th-century economic boom to its better educated workforce, he said, and sending more students to college will ensure we remain competitive in today’s global economy.
The President’s choice of Knoxville was strategic. America’s College Promise draws its name and inspiration from Tennessee Promise, the first statewide free community college program, enacted in 2014. President Obama praised Tennessee’s initiative and went on to call for nationwide tuition-free community college in his 2015 State of the Union Address.
Since then, so-called “Promise programs” have caught on at the state and local levels. Oregon now has a statewide program of its own, begun in July 2015. Minnesota implemented a pilot program in May 2015 which covers tuition for two-year technical school students in high-demand program areas. At least 11 other states have Promise program legislation under consideration. Last month, North Carolina’s new Attorney General Roy Cooper released an education plan calling for tuition-free community college in his state. And cities such as Philadelphia and Detroit have adopted the idea too.
The Bluegrass State may be next. The Kentucky state legislature is debating a plan to make two-year technical schools and community colleges “free” for the state’s high school graduates. The “Work Ready” scholarship bill, HB 626, passed the state House of Representatives in late March and is now before the senate.
The case for free community college rests on the premise that eliminating tuition will drive more students to college—and that the benefits of a better educated workforce outweigh the costs of taxpayer-funded tuition. But the evidence for that is sparse.
Like the Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota models, Kentucky’s Work Ready program takes a “last-dollar approach.” Eligible students will receive additional funding from the state to cover tuition and fees not covered by other federal- and state-funded aid.
But the last-dollar approach disproportionately benefits wealthier students. It fills funding gaps after federal and state grants have been awarded, and since higher-income students are less likely to qualify for the maximum Pell Grant award, these students are more likely to receive state Promise program funds—and in higher amounts. In an ironic twist, states can end up subsidizing higher-income students at the expense of lower-income students. To fund its Promise program, Tennessee established an endowment using $300 million of lottery reserve funds—even though many studies have shown that the poor are most likely to purchase lottery tickets.
Promise programs also suppose that the price of college is the greatest impediment to student success. Is this the case? Federal grants already cover community college tuition for the average low-income student—yet this doesn’t ensure degree completion. Just one-third of students from the lowest income quartile who started at two-year colleges in 2003 completed their academic program by 2009.
In the words of the poet Robert Service: “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” The truth is that Promise programs do not make community college tuition-free. The Tennessee, Oregon, Minnesota, and Kentucky programs don’t reduce cost of attendance; they simply shift the burden of payment from students to taxpayers. One consequence is that college spending will rise to whatever amount the public can be cajoled into investing. And while federal and state investments might be able to foot the bill today, if community colleges continue to follow the general trend in higher ed towards increased enrollment, rising tuition, and more administrative bloat, then taxpayers—including many who are students—will find themselves shelling out more and more as time goes on. Sometimes the budget strain will prove too great and colleges will have to turn students away, as was the case in California during the Recession.
Community colleges and technical schools matter. They serve nontraditional students, impart valuable skills, and can be a gateway to a university education. Thus, they can and should make vital contributions to higher education’s fourfold mission to provide vocational training, develop character, pursue truth, and inculcate knowledge of our civilization and the world at large. Access to community college also matters, but Promise programs are not the solution. In pledging to make college free, they promise what they can’t deliver.