Late last month, Time magazine published an insightful piece (“The Problem With Obama’s ‘Free Community College’ Proposal“) by researchers at the Community College Research Center within Columbia University’s Teachers College that highlighted shortcomings of the Obama Administration’s recently proposed plan to offer tuition-free admission to community colleges, focusing their analysis on weak program outcomes and quality issues. We’ve weighed in on this concern ourselves, most recently here.

The latest impartial reality check on why this proposal is not the right way to increase access to affordable, quality higher education opportunities appeared last week in The New York Times. In a column titled The Promise and Failure of Community Colleges, economy columnist Eduardo Porter examines whether President Obama’s much-heralded community colleges can adequately serve student populations most likely to avail themselves of the program, many of whom are unprepared for postsecondary education.

In reference to President Obama’s comments, which were made while announcing the initiative at Koxville, TN-based Pellissippi Community College, that community colleges are “essential pathways to the middle class,” particularly for those who “don’t have the capacity to just suddenly go study for four years and not work,” Mr. Porter writes:

“…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…”

And therein lies a critical flaw in the Department’s GE Rule:  the Department has devised formulas that basically exempt community colleges from complying with the regulation, essentially treating them as sacred cows even though many are producing the poor program results that the Department claims the GE Rule seeks to weed out. It’s a nonsensical approach at best — and one that gives great credibility to charges that GE is biased in its application, targeting proprietary colleges by design.

To be clear — and fair — we know that there are many community colleges across the country producing excellent outcomes for program enrollees. We do not mean to suggest that they all are created equally and should be judged universally by the shortcomings of the weakest performer among them.  (As an aside, it’s unfortunate that the Department of Education doesn’t share our stance: that’s exactly how proprietary colleges are treated under GE.)

That said, the government’s own statistics on the graduation rates at community colleges paint a bleak picture of whether it makes sense for the government to try to drive students to their programs instead of to credible colleges and universities, both public and proprietary, that are producing vastly superior outcomes for students and preparing them for success in the job market. After all, the value of an education is not based on its tuition price tag. Even when it’s free.



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