The Chutes and Ladders of Free Community College

Although widely-supported, the proposition of free community college in the U.S. has also been met with its fair share of criticism since receiving a big push from Obama’s administration in 2015 through the America’s College Promise Act. While the current administration’s stance on this movement remains unclear, individual states are launching their own initiatives in pursuit of increased accessibility in higher education. Reminiscent of the classic Chutes and Ladders board game, the many factors working to accelerate the establishment of free community college are equally matched with deterrents and obstacles.

Well, Chute: Eligibility & Financial Allocation

Some may argue that the term “free” is being applied too loosely in light of the many eligibility requirements associated with the promise of waived tuition fees. Course-load minimums, existing receipt of government financial assistance, as well as income and age restrictions are just a few of the barriers preventing low-income students from reaping the benefits of a free or relatively affordable college education. Moreover, many are concerned that restrictions and loopholes are redirecting financial aid away from those who need it most and into the pockets of higher-income students.

Some may argue that the term “free” is being applied too loosely in light of the many eligibility requirements associated with the promise of waived tuition fees.

Building Ladders Through Technology & Inclusion

The City College of San Francisco and City University of New York’s community college network have been making headlines as of late, for their respective free tuition proposals. CUNY community colleges recognize that under Gov. Cuomo’s free tuition plan, the eligibility requirement of full-time enrollment may be restrictive to their many students working full-time jobs. Alternatively, those who’s schedules allow for full-time enrollment have expressed concerns over course capacity limitations. These issues have prompted an increase in online course offerings, with additional student services proposed to go the digital route as well. While technology promises to fill access gaps, the removal of exclusive criteria altogether may prove particularly innovative. CCSF has just announced that they are making community college free to all San Francisco residents, regardless of age, course-load, or income. The city’s financial commitment- made possible through voter-approved property taxes- is making free community college fiscally possible. However, it is the removal of restrictive eligibility criteria that is making higher education truly accessible to all residents.

The removal of tuition costs represents a single, preliminary component of an overall mission to shrink the widening education and employment gap.

The Overall Objective

Having completely worn out the board game analogy, it is important to address the wide-spread concern that financial assistance is merely a quick-fix solution to the complex problem of accessibility in higher education. However, as many institutions have pointed out, the removal of tuition costs represents a single, preliminary component of an overall mission to shrink the widening education and employment gap. The hope is that increased enrollment will attract the necessary resources and funding to expand academic offerings and student services, thus contributing to positive retention, completion, and employment outcomes. Of course, getting students through the front door is a crucial first step.

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