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Friday, June 23, 2017

Will Free Community College Really Help Low-Income Students? | Education Week - Opinion

Photo: Kate Schwass
"Money isn’t the only obstacle to college completion" argues Kate Schwass, San Francisco Bay Area executive director for CollegeSpring.

Photo: Getty

In the face of soaring college tuitions and skyrocketing educational inequity, many educators and lawmakers are suggesting a way to help low-income students earn degrees: Why not offer in-state students community college for free?
After years in the shadows, the idea is gaining real momentum. Just last month, Tennessee, which already had a free-community-college program for recent high school graduates, announced it will open that program to any adult in the state without a college degree in 2018. Earlier this year, San Francisco became the first city in the country to offer free community college to all of its residents, and lawmakers in California, New York, and Rhode Island introduced similar proposals to cover tuition and other costs for students.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why free community college (specifically, free tuition for two-year schools that grant associate degrees) would be anything but helpful for students from low-income backgrounds. Students who graduate from community college have lower rates of unemployment and earn $6,600 more a year than those who have a high school diploma. Remove the cost of earning an associate’s degree, and you’ll put its benefits within reach of any student who wants one—right?
 
It’s clear that the prospect of free tuition will likely motivate more low-income students to enroll in community college. But those students still face considerable obstacles having nothing to do with money once they arrive on campus. What’s more, free tuition could deter low-income students from pursuing four-year colleges and universities.

Until educators account for these truths, we could be inadvertently pushing large numbers of students away from their best educational path in four-year colleges or universities.

One challenge for low-income community college students is that they are more likely to be needlessly placed in remedial courses than their wealthier peers and those at four-year colleges. Most colleges require that incoming students take standardized placement tests to see if they need remedial reading, writing, and math courses. About 70 percent of low-income community college students are placed in remedial courses, compared with about 50 percent of their wealthier community college peers.

Despite the good intention, remedial courses are a significant barrier to graduation. A 2012 report from the nonprofit Complete College America found that fewer than one in 10 students who begin in remedial courses graduate from community colleges within three years. This is in part because remedial courses don’t count toward a degree—a discouraging prospect for many students. What’s more, the standardized tests that typically determine remediation decisions are often not accurate—as many as a third of all students are forced to review content they already understand well.
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Source: Education Week


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