Does Free College Work?

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President Biden’s plan to make community colleges free for all students comes at a critical time: The pandemic led to a steep decline in college enrollment, particularly for low-income and minority students. And businesses have struggled to fill vacancies, as the economy adds jobs at a rapid rate.

Proponents of the proposal, which would cost $109 billion over 10 years and is part of Mr. Biden’s American Families Plan, argue that community colleges can help solve both of these problems while also boosting local economies. In addition to paying for tuition, the plan would allocate resources for community colleges to build programs that addressed skills shortages. And a number of economic studies have suggested that increasing the percentage of college graduates benefits everyone, not just the students who received grants to go to college.

“There is a spillover effect,” said Timothy Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, who has studied programs that subsidize education and job skills. “The fact that your neighbor’s kids get an education makes the local economy more productive.”

Still, most Americans have doubts about the effectiveness of community colleges, with only 12 percent believing community college degrees prepare people “very well” for the work force, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. Mr. Biden’s plan, which if passed would be funded through tax increases on the wealthy, faces resistance from Republican politicians who say community colleges consistently underperform, with only about a third of students graduating.

The debate is muddled by insufficient data. Few detailed studies have looked at how community colleges affect students’ earnings in the long term, and while 15 states have programs that offer tuition-free community college to anyone, regardless of high school grades or income, most of these programs are too new to have shown meaningful results.

One exception is Tennessee, a Republican-run state, whose statewide program was inspired by a county-level program started in 2008. Looking closely at Tennessee’s program, which goes further in offering tuition-free community college than programs in almost any other state, suggests both what free community college can accomplish — and some factors that may be important for doing so.

Bringing a Better Work Force to Knoxville

In 2008, small businesses in Knox County, in eastern Tennessee, could not find enough skilled workers — particularly nurses, computer technicians, welders and pipe fitters. In response, the county started a program, funded by local businesses and leaders, that offered tuition-free community college to all high school graduates. The program’s founders framed it as a way to create a sustainable work force.

“Yes, we believe that all students have the potential to earn a college credential, but it was about bringing a world-class work force to Knoxville and Knox County so that we could attract business and industry to the area,” said Krissy DeAlejandro, an executive director and one of the founders of the program.

More than a decade later, the results are encouraging.

Participants who graduated from high school in 2009, 2010 and 2011 were earning, on average, 13 percent more seven years after graduation than their classmates who did not participate in the program, according to research by the University of Tennessee. “The fact that they found any increases in terms of earnings is meaningful,” said Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher at the Upjohn Institute and an expert on the tuition-free college movement.

In the three years after it started, the program raised college enrollment among Knox County high school graduates by about 3 percentage points, on average, from the average of the previous two years.

In 2014, Tennessee started a statewide program offering tuition-free community college or technical school. (The program is funded by the state, and private donors fund a nonprofit organization offering student-success initiatives, including mentorship.) In the years since, a significantly higher percentage of high school graduates have enrolled in college within a year, and more have earned degrees or work force certificates, according to the Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis focused on the accessibility of higher education.

What Tennessee Got Right

Celeste Carruthers, a professor at the University of Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business who has extensively researched the state’s tuition-free programs, said Tennessee had done several things right. The first was keeping the program simple.

“The crystal-clear message that college is free if you follow these steps and go to these places cuts through a lot of the clutter and opaqueness,” Dr. Carruthers said. Need-based and merit-based programs in other states, she said, had less success attracting low-income students, some of whom have struggled to navigate the complicated college financial aid process.

Another aspect of Tennessee’s success was its focus on mentorship for students. One point that conversations about low graduation rates often overlook is that community colleges take all students, regardless of grades and test scores, said Juan Salgado, the chancellor of Chicago’s community college system. Many are first-generation college students, and some are struggling with homelessness, hunger or other family problems.

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That may mean students need more help meeting deadlines, completing coursework and finding jobs. Studies of a program that City University of New York developed to provide mentorship and other support services for students showed impressive increases in graduation rates for low-income students when three community colleges in Ohio replicated it, but results were less encouraging in Detroit.

“Evidence shows that with the right support, financial included, our students can do extremely well despite their circumstances,” Mr. Salgado said.

He said mentorship and apprenticeship programs, like ones that Chicago community colleges have with Aon, one of the world’s largest insurance brokerages, enabled students to begin building a professional network for guidance on interviews, career goals and even office attire. A first-generation college student himself, Mr. Salgado said he remembered not having anyone to go to for advice about what to wear to work. He said he had felt humiliated on his first day on the job when he realized his outfit stood out.

“It hurt me, from a self-esteem standpoint,” he said. “I didn’t have exposure to a network of professionals.”

Ms. DeAlejandro, too, knew from her own experience as a first-generation college student that free tuition alone was not enough for programs to succeed. The Knox Country program recruited volunteer mentors from local businesses to help students through their senior year of high school and the first semester of college.

“That’s the magic of what we do,” Ms. DeAlejandro said. “All the different pieces make a student feel seen.”

Johari Hamilton, who graduated last month from Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis in the top of her class, said the tutoring, mental health counseling and encouragement had helped her stay focused and engaged.

“It was absolutely necessary for me to achieve that level of success,” said Ms. Hamilton, 48, a single parent who raised three children and went back to school after struggling to find a job. In the fall, she plans to transfer to Middle Tennessee State University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in public relations.

Lessons for the Biden Plan

Carmel Martin, an adviser to Mr. Biden who helped design the national proposal, said Tennessee’s program was among those that White House officials studied.

“Some good studies show positive outcomes from Tennessee,” Ms. Martin said. “There’s various components that were very smart.”

Like the Tennessee program, the Biden plan includes a mentorship program, opportunities for people who want work force credentials but not a four-year degree, and investment in programs tailored to the skills that local employers need. For example, if aviation engineering skills are in high demand, funds could go for equipment or labs to offer certificates in that space.

But while increasing access to community college is appealing to lawmakers in both parties, there are disagreements on how to go about it. Representative Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican, said the federal government should not funnel billions of dollars of taxpayer money into schools without a track record.

“Every dollar you give to a university ought to have a string attached to it,” he said, adding that too many schools are educating students in areas where no jobs are available.

There is a political risk that some of the aspects that made the Tennessee program a success may not get congressional approval — and that’s if the community college provision of the plan is approved at all.

Dr. Miller-Adams, author of “The Path to Free College: In Pursuit of Access, Equity, and Prosperity,” said the lack of research was all the more remarkable given the huge numbers of students enrolled in community colleges. An analysis by Columbia University’s Teachers College showed that 44 percent of undergraduates, mostly from low-income families and minority groups, attended public two-year colleges.

“There are huge amounts of money being committed without really strong evidence,” Dr. Miller-Adams said.

Bruce Sacerdote, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, said that while the Biden program would undoubtedly raise the number of college graduates, more needed to be done to combat wealth inequality. “This thing is not a silver bullet,” he said.

What do you think? Would free community college boost the economy? Is there a better way to promote education or build skills? Let us know: [email protected]

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