President Barack Obama has spelled out a proposal that would offer two years of community college tuition free to any student who wanted to take advantage of it. Once enrolled, these students would need to maintain a 2.5 grade point average, stay enrolled at least half time and be on track to graduate on time in order to keep receiving the tuition-free access.
This program would essentially make the first two years of a college education a basic American right — aligning it with universal access to a K-12 education. Of course there would be some requirements for having access to that right and it would not be mandatory, but the basic premise would be the same: free education for any American student.
There are individual benefits for sure, but the ultimate goal of such a lofty program would be to elevate the status of the United States in the world economy, keeping the U.S. workforce competitive and sharp.
Arguably this plan helps every person with higher education aspirations — after all, more Americans with access to a college education means a stronger economy. In addition, less college debt means more money in the pockets of college graduates that they can then pump back into the economy.
Proponents of the plan say that it will particularly help minorities when it comes to college attendance because it removes the cost barrier that tends to discourage these groups from enrolling. Educators know how difficult it can be to get minorities to the high school graduation point; asking these students to then pay for a college education right afterward is even more daunting. Free tuition would theoretically take away that issue.
I say that access to free community college will not actually help minorities — at least not on its own. The financial burden of college is a big one but there are accompanying issues to consider as well.
Free K-12 education isn’t working
We know that there is an achievement gap in PK-12 learning and that Black students drop out of high school at a rate that is twice as high as White students. The rate for Hispanic students is over three times as high as White kids. This happens despite these minorities having access to the same opportunities (in theory) as their White counterparts. A public education is free to these students, yet minority students still drop out of high school at rates that are simply too high.
So the assumption that offering free college classes and credits will translate into higher performance is flawed. Removing financial restraints alone will not encourage minorities to enroll in or stay in college classes until their graduation dates.
Therefore, we need more than free access to community college to help minorities succeed in higher education settings. Starting in our K-12 schools, we need better targeting of struggling students and remedial interventions that take effect immediately, not after a standardized assessment points out that a student is already failing.
We need mentorship programs, both at the high school and community college level, where minority students can connect with the success stories of people who look like they do and came from similar backgrounds. We need more people of color who enter the teaching profession — particularly Black males — so that minority students see themselves somewhere in the education process. More attention needs to be paid to the cultural differences that influence learning environments so that minority students are able to succeed.
Beyond free: What minorities need to succeed in college
When these minority students enroll in community college, we need orientation programs that last an entire semester or year that keep students on track and accountable for the fate of their college careers. By consistently checking in with these students, we can ward off any issues that may cause them to quit too soon.
We need job-based initiatives that funnel students into the right classes at the right times and keep them on target for their end goals. We need better guidance processes, mentorship programs, job placement results and awareness of the distinct issues minority students face when they arrive in college classrooms. If all of these things work in conjunction with free access to community college classes, then we may just be on to something.
Money is not the only barrier that keeps minorities from enrolling in and finishing college classes. Removing that obstacle is certainly a step in the right direction but other supporting initiatives need to be in place, too, if we truly want to create a diverse, highly educated American public.