Press "Enter" to skip to content

Free Community College program falling short

Oregon is experiencing the realization that the best laid plans of mice and men don’t guarantee the desired outcome. Like Michigan, Oregon has a free community college tuition program for adult learners over the age of 25. Five years ago, state officials set a goal to increase the two-year graduation rate among eligible Oregonians by 300,000 individuals over 13 years.

To meet that goal, the state would need to ramp up a program by 2020, and then graduate 30,000 additional students per year like clockwork. In the first two years, the program missed its enrollment mark by an average of 7,500 students per year. (That’ just the enrollment goal, which doesn’t take into account the actual graduation rate.)

Right now, the graduation rate at Oregon’s community college ranges from 7%-35%. Taking the midpoint – 21% – to get 300,000 graduates, the free community college program would have to enroll about 1.5M additional people over 10 years to account for the nearly 80% attrition rate the schools naturally experience. The state’s 17 community colleges would each need to enroll an additional 8,400 students every year to reach the target graduation outcomes by 2030. Additionally, Oregon has only 1.39M people who have only a high school diploma or some college but no degree. In other words, the state doesn’t even have enough people in the target group to make the program work.

And as Oregon is finding out – pulling people back from the workforce and into the college classroom is a nearly insurmountable challenge. Once people start working and taking on financial responsibilities – a lease or mortgage, car loans, children, etc., they can’t stop working. Going to school adds a layer of complexity to their lives that they simply cannot manage.

Older students need more than just free community college

None of this means that Oregon – or any other state – should give up on the notion of getting older learners into (or back into) the classrooms. But it does mean the state and its community colleges need to employ other strategies to get students through the program.

These strategies might include finding ways for adults with some credits but no degree to complete the programs they started, or to pivot to new programs that can use credits they have already earned. Accelerating degree programs to allow students to complete credit hours faster would also help. Creating hybrid programs that combine self-paced study with instructor-led classes for subjects like math may help students recover knowledge and skills they have already learned. This approach would also open the door to STEM programs, which can lead to high-wage, high demand jobs.

Successfully increasing the graduation rate among non-traditional students may also include providing additional academic support, social services, transportation, childcare, health care, Internet access, and in some cases, housing support.

Removing the cost barrier to education is a start, but alone, it is unlikely to succeed in getting a high number of non-traditional students through a post-secondary program successfully.

Photo Credit: Paul Inkles , via Flickr