In an attempt to promote his flagging free community college plan, President Barack Obama recently made a pitch at Macomb Community College in Michigan. "It's an idea that makes sense," he said.
The reality, however, is more complicated. The president's plan – which would make the first two years of community college free for students who make good progress toward obtaining their degree, attend school at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 GPA – mostly ignores an unfortunate truth about America's community colleges: They're in bad shape. Without serious reform, it makes little sense to send more students to these institutions.
Community colleges exhibit the lowest graduation rates of any type of higher education institution... The most reliable estimates suggest that only 20 to 25 percent of community college students eventually move on to four-year schools.
Community colleges exhibit the lowest graduation rates of any type of higher education institution. According to federal data, only 19.5 percent of community students graduate within three years. And as time goes on, even fewer students are making it to graduation day at community colleges. Among two-year colleges, the community college sector is the only one with decreasing graduation rates.
In his speech at Macomb, Obama alluded to the role of community colleges in preparing students for traditional four-year colleges. But it's not your typical community college student who transfers to a four-year school. The most reliable estimates suggest that only 20 to 25 percent of community college students eventually move on to four-year schools.
The financial outcomes of students who have borrowed to attend community college aren't too rosy, either. Though community colleges offer the cheapest college degrees, their students are the most likely default on their loans within three years. And defaults are climbing, too: From 2009-2010 to 2011-2012, the growth of default rates at community colleges was second only to that at four-year public colleges.
Without seriously reforming the community college sector, it would be unwise to simply make it easier for students to attend community colleges...
It's not terribly difficult to understand these subpar outcomes. Community college students usually work full-time while enrolled, making it difficult for them to devote full attention to their studies. Studies also show that students who enter community college tend to lack focus, and schools fail to do their part to provide sufficient direction.
Without seriously reforming the community college sector, it would be unwise to simply make it easier for students to attend community colleges, as Obama's plan promises to do. While the president initially said that grant awards would be tied to performance, his budget indicates that the government will disburse new funds based on factors unrelated to student success.
Instead of simply pushing more students into a failing system, both policymakers and community college administrators should work towards offering students more direction and shortening the amount of time they spend getting their degrees. College community administrators should emulate successful examples like North Carolina's Pamlico College, where advisors track student progress, and California's Foothill College, which constantly re-evaluates its strategies for student success. They might also look at technical and for-profit colleges, which prepare students for the working world by offering relevant coursework and internships.
In order to encourage innovation and greater student success, the federal government should provide new funding to community colleges that both have a proven track record of student achievement and commit to improving student advisory programs. To incentivize underperforming schools, policymakers should make schools' student loan eligibility contingent on improving graduation and loan repayment rates. And to push students to graduate quickly, students should receive smaller unsubsidized loan awards after their fourth year of school.
It's certainly true that traditional four-year colleges aren't for everyone. Community colleges should offer a cheap, viable option for students looking to get ahead. With serious reform, there's a chance they will.