With the 2020 election coverage heating up (especially for Democrats), there's been a swarm of people discussing the concept of "free college" for all Americans. At www.berniesanders.com, his platform for education is clear, "Everyone deserves the right to a good higher education if they choose to pursue it, no matter their income." Bernie includes four-year, public colleges, universities, and community colleges in this plan. According to his calculations, this would save each student $84,000 (price of four years "all-in" for a bachelor’s degree). I am a huge student education advocate and believe that a bachelor’s degree is simply table-stakes for not only entering the job community, but for advancing one's career.
What puzzles me about "free college" is the wide disparity of the quality of education, depending on which "free college" one might attend. For example, who goes to community colleges (which primarily provide associate degrees)? In the U.S. there are 1,051 community colleges, representing seven million students in 2019 (AACC website). Unfortunately, (according to the Hechinger Report), fewer than one out of five students at community colleges obtain their desired degree in three years or less. A recent study published by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) paints a similarly grim picture by indicating that high college dropout rates cost both state and federal governments billions of dollars each year. As shown in the graph above, data from the National Center for Education Statistics, shows that only 13 percent of community college students graduate in two years. Within three years, approximately 22 percent of students graduate, and within four years, the rate stands at 28 percent.
There have been many studies published in the academic community about the root causes of these high dropout rates and longer attendance periods in order to reach a degree. While more repeatable studies are needed, some investigators claim that the conclusions are inaccurate because a portion of students "dropping-out" of community colleges may be transferring to a four-year institution without attaining an associate degree. Others point out that dropout rates are inflated because they only look at up to a five-year time frame. Due to family/personal reasons or circumstances beyond their control, a segment of dropouts may go back later (5-7 years) and complete a degree. There is also discussion regarding many of the students who show up in reports as “dropouts” did not leave school because they wanted to, rather, they were compelled to by some uncontrollable life event.
I think, regardless of these alternative explanations, there is a serious problem with community colleges and their ability to do better than a 25% success rate (IPEDS). With federal funding (63% of tuition) and state funding (17% of tuition), community colleges are struggling in almost every area: attracting qualified instructors, attracting students (overall), aging facilities, changing student population (older students, diversity students), outdated teaching methodologies, lack of personalized learning, and a lack of digital technologies (while most colleges/universities are in the middle of an enormous digital transformation). These challenges directly impact student engagement and likely amounts to a significant contributing factor to high drop-out rates.
I have an 18-year old son who recently enrolled at my "local - not to be named - community college." I realize that citing one example doesn't really provide any substantial evidence. It does, however, help to illustrate these challenges. His enrollment experience was worse than registering a car with the DMV. The college's move towards digital transformation is practically invisible. From their website, to their ability to help, practically every task was a physical chore. Instructors are teaching from 20-year old textbooks. Their Learning Management System (LMS) is one of the popular ones (brand purposefully omitted here), but instructors simply haven't adopted it. In almost every way, my son's public high school was better.
If this type of environment is even partially similar at other community colleges, it begs the question: is this the "free college" that Bernie Sanders has in mind? Perhaps we need to evaluate how to transform our decaying community college systems in the U.S., before we start giving it away.