President Biden’s American Family Plan includes a call for universal free community college, a proposal that had also been embraced by President Obama.
Free community college will no doubt be popular with voters, who like receiving financial benefits and don’t worry too much these days about broader program effectiveness or the public debt. And, since those who attend community colleges are disproportionately people of color and those from poorer families and communities, this plan would no doubt help many disadvantaged students.
Still, I have concerns. Community college allows students to pursue either academic degrees or workforce training. Students can obtain associate degrees and then transfer to four-year institutions, or they can simply attain the first degree. They can also get degrees or certificates in high-demand fields like health care or advanced manufacturing that can raise their earnings substantially.
But community colleges also have mixed track records of success. Degree completion rates there are under 40 percent; and most students who plan to transfer and obtain BAs do not successfully do so. While some degrees and credentials obtained at community colleges are valued in the job market, others do not — such as associate degrees in the liberal arts or certificates in low-wage fields (like cosmetology).