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What would free community college do to enrollment?

The Futures for Frontliners program will give Michigan community colleges a taste of the impact of universal free community college. As of last week, about the program had received about 90,000 applications from frontline workers seeking a two-year degree. The application window for the program closes December 31. State officials estimate that as many as 625,000 people could be eligible for benefits under the program.

Yesterday, I wrote about the impact of reducing the cost of community college attendance. A Brigham Young University researcher estimated that a $1,000 reduction in cost could increase community college enrollment by as much as 20%. The researcher assumed that annexation of unserved school districts would be able to drive such large cost reductions. The BYU study did not consider how free college programs could achieve large cost-of-attendance reductions.

In a universal free community college model, the impact on community college enrollment is staggering. According to a recent working paper published by the Federal Trade Commission, a first-dollar free community college program could increase community college enrollment by nearly 50%. The paper also examines the impact of such programs on private, for-profit colleges and non-profit, non-selective four-year institutions.

According to the FTC working paper, free community college programs would draw most new enrollees from among people who would not otherwise have gone to any college. (This finding mirrors the conclusion of the BYU researcher). The program would draw the remaining students from private for-profit and non-selective four-year colleges. Those institution types would likely suffer enrollment declines of 20% or more. A free community college program would not affect selective universities. According to the author, selective university applicants will not substitute a two-year degree program for a four-year one.

Free community college increases enrollment, degree completions

Overall, net college enrollment would increase by 26% or more and degree completion would increase by 22%. This figure represents both gains by the community colleges and losses by other institutions. The paper also examines the impact of “last-dollar” programs and need-based free community college programs. These variations change the net increase in both college enrollment and degree completion. Regardless of the scenario, however, community college enrollment rises.

The FTC research and the research from BYU support the conclusion that cost is a barrier to enrollment for some students. Eliminating that barrier through a free community college program will make college accessible to people who would otherwise not enroll. According to the research, the majority of universal free college program enrollees would complete degree programs. In other words, they are smart, resourceful and persistent, but they lack the financial wherewithal to finance a college education.

Conversely, raising tuition has little impact on enrollment among students who would go to college anyway. Rising tuition bars only those would-be students who cannot afford even the lowest-cost post-secondary option.

There is hidden (high) demand for post-secondary education. Free community college programs prove that. It is disappointing that our community college has made no independent effort to tap into that demand. Instead, the plan is to defund education to finance a hotel and conference center that have no relationship to WCC’s primary educational mission.

Photo Credit: Kurtis Garbutt , via Flickr