Behind Obama's Offer, the Promise and Failure of Community Colleges

By Porter, Eduardo | International New York Times, February 19, 2015 | Go to article overview

Behind Obama's Offer, the Promise and Failure of Community Colleges


Porter, Eduardo, International New York Times


President Obama's offer of a full ride to community college should increase enrollment, but its success will depend more on how many students graduate.

There are two critical things to know about community colleges.

The first is that they could be the nation's most powerful tools to improve the opportunities of less privileged Americans, giving them a shot at harnessing a fast-changing job market and building a more equitable, inclusive society for all of us. The second is that, at this job, they have largely failed.

When President Obama stood at Pellissippi Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., last month and offered every committed student two years' worth of community college at the government's expense, he focused on the first point.

With open enrollment and an average price tag of $3,800 a year for full-time students, community colleges are pretty much the only shot at a higher education for those who don't have the cash or the high school record to go to a four-year university. And that's a lot of people: 45 percent of the undergraduate students in the country.

They are "essential pathways to the middle class," Mr. Obama said. They work for parents and full-time workers, for veterans re- entering civilian life, and for those who "don't have the capacity to just suddenly go study for four years and not work."

What the president chose not to emphasize is that precious few of the students at community colleges are likely to fulfill the promise and complete their education. Of all the students who enroll full time at Pellissippi, for example, only 22 percent graduate from a two-year program within three years. Just 8 percent transfer to a four-year college.

And that's hardly the bottom of the barrel. There are many community colleges with much worse records.

The president's offer of a free ride should increase enrollment: White House officials estimate that the program, if approved by Congress, would lift enrollment by 1.6 million by 2026, bringing the total to nine million students from about seven million today. But that's the easy bit.

Whether his plan ultimately delivers on its promise, however, will depend less on how many students enter than how many successfully navigate their way out. Today, only 35 percent of a given entry cohort attain a degree within six years, according to government statistics.

At public four-year colleges, 57 percent of the students graduate within six years. And it's getting worse. Community college graduation rates have been declining over the last decade.

It's past time we paid attention. Community colleges have been consistently ignored by policy makers who equate higher education with a bachelor's degree -- mostly ignoring that a very large group of young Americans are not prepared, either financially, cognitively or socially, for that kind of education.

Meanwhile, American higher education has become a preserve of the elite. Only one in 20 Americans ages 25 to 34 whose parents didn't finish high school has a college degree. The average across 20 advanced industrial nations assessed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is almost one in four.

"What choice do we have but to make these institutions work?" a White House official who has been working on the new proposal told me. "There is no real alternative out there for 40 percent of students."

But Mr. Obama's plan risks falling well short of its ambitions.

Community college students may not be the poorest of the poor, but they mostly come from stressed backgrounds in the bottom half of the income distribution, and they often lack the money or social support networks to help them through school. Most are not truly prepared for college, requiring remedial courses in math or English before they receive their first higher education credit. …

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