Free Community College Won’t Fix California’s Education Gap

BY LAUREN LOW

Left behind graduation cap on ground. (Getty Images)

On Friday, Oct. 16,  Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 19, making the first year of community college tuition free for full-time students. California’s 114 community colleges are already some of the cheapest in the country, charging just $46 per credit. This fee was previously waived for low-income students. Now, all students enrolled in the California community college system will receive this waiver, regardless of their income. However, the tuition waiver is only available to first-time students who are enrolled full-time. This plan does not eliminate all expenses associated with attending school, as students will still be responsible for paying for their own textbooks, healthcare, and fees for extracurricular activities. The initiative will cost the state an estimated $31.1 million per year. This plan could go into effect as soon as next school year if funding is included in the June budget. While this plan aims to provide students with increased economic opportunities and job prospects, the actual value of a community college education is questionable and the high price of four-year universities continues to pose a significant barrier for low-income students. 

This initiative to eliminate community college tuition is not the first of its kind. In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed a plan to provide two years of community college for free. Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Oregon have already instituted tuition-free community college programs. One of the most radical tuition-free community college plans can be found right here in California. San Francisco recently made community college courses free for all residents, even if they aren’t enrolled full-time. San Francisco’s program also assists low-income students with additional expenses, including textbooks and other fees. AB 19 builds on these previous efforts to provide wider access to community college courses.

Despite this bill’s good intentions, a community college education does little to increase someone’s economic opportunity. Community college degrees are seeing a decreased return on investment and students are often better off pursuing a professional certification. While community college is often seen as the gateway to a four-year degree, this is not the case for many students. While 80 percent of community college students say they wish to transfer to a four-year, only 20 percent actually make this transition within 5 years. Low-income students are significantly less likely to make this transfer. The ones who do make it are less likely to get their degrees than their wealthier peers. Clearly, there are not adequate support systems in place to help low-income students succeed, making the community college system an ineffective way to reduce inequality. Only 28 percent of community college students even graduate within four years. Community college may not be as effective in providing better career opportunities as legislators claim. In order to truly give students better opportunities, more must be done to eliminate barriers to attending four-year universities.

Having a four-year college degree has become increasingly linked to better economic opportunities. Degrees from four-year colleges are now seeing increased economic returns, even in jobs that do not traditionally require a college education. The necessity of a college education has led to a dramatic increase in the number of students applying to and attending four-year universities. This past year, the University of California system saw a record-shattering 171,000 applications. Economic barriers play a major role in preventing students from attaining undergraduate degrees. While community college costs remain cheap and are further decreased by AB 19, tuition at California’s public universities continues to rise. Over the past 20 years, tuition at UC and CSU universities has tripled, despite spending remaining relatively stable. In January, the UC Regents voted to increase tuition by 2.5 percent after a six year freeze, despite widespread student outrage. These increases have not been caused by heightened university spending or inflation, but by a decrease in subsidies provided by the state to public universities. Decreased state funding has come at a time when more students than ever are attending public universities, placing more economic demands on universities. State spending cuts to public education, along with the demands of rapidly increasing application and enrollment rates, have forced schools to increase tuition for students. As state subsidies to public universities decline, students are being forced to make up the difference. This has led to rapid increases in student debt, with California student debt averaging $21,382. High tuition costs have made higher education unattainable for many low-income students. Even those who receive generous financial aid may lack the ability to pay the high housing and textbook costs associated with attending a four-year college.

AB 19 does little to actually help low-income students attain four-year degrees. The inexpensive, but ineffective, community college system is failing students because it lacks support systems that can provide guidance to struggling students. The ones who manage to transfer to a four-year college find themselves unable to afford high tuition, expensive housing, and outrageous fees, making it extremely difficult for low-income students to successfully access higher education. Low-income students who go on to four-year schools face financial difficulties, food insecurity, and, increasingly, homelessness, as they struggle to pay for their education, which impedes on their ability to be academically successful. Additional demands placed on low-income students, such as work and family obligations, also hurt their ability to perform well in school and can delay their graduation time. A lack of adequate guidance, frequently experienced by first-generation students, also leads to longer stays at universities. Low-income students are less likely to graduate within four years, leading to increased student debt, further burdening them and their families. With all of these institutional disadvantages, it’s no wonder that cycles of poverty and inequality remain so ingrained in our state’s economy. The efforts by the state to make community college cheaper do nothing to address the larger problems facing low-income students in our education system.

Economic barriers to higher education have impacted some regions more than others. Regional disparities in college graduates have grown dramatically since the 1980s, alongside increased economic inequality and wage stagnation. The share of Bay Area adults with college degrees has reached 128 percent of the state average, while the percentage of Central Valley adults with college degrees is only 56 percent of the state average. These regional gaps in access to higher education leave some communities unable to compete in the state economy, leaving many lower-income communities with even fewer economic opportunities. This gap in access to higher education perpetuates cycles of inequality throughout the state. The polarization of wealth in this state, with tech powerhouses like Silicon Valley growing rapidly while farming communities decline, poses a serious problem for California’s future. Large portions of our state’s population are being left behind. California is the sixth largest economy in the world and is growing quickly, but the benefits of this growth are only reaching small, concentrated portions of the state. This growth is unsustainable if inequality persists at its current level. Taking effective steps to increase access to higher education could help struggling communities. If financial barriers to higher education were reduced, the economy of low-income regions could be boosted as college graduates return to develop their home communities.

One potential solution to the higher education gap is simply making public institutions tuition-free. While this wouldn’t eliminate all the barriers that make it difficult for low-income students to access higher education, it would seriously reduce the gap in students who are able to complete four-year degrees. If the California legislators are serious about increasing opportunities for low-income students, providing free four-year education would be a much more effective solution than waiving community college fees. When UC Berkeley, the first UC school, was founded in 1868, tuition was free for all California residents. While this may seem like an impossible goal today, there is a growing push by students and lawmakers alike to provide free, or at least very low cost, tuition at public universities. New York has recently become the first state to provide free four-year college to its residents. In April, New York created the Excelsior Scholarship, which will enable students whose families have incomes of less than $125,000 to attend any public New York State university or community college for free, as long as they are full-time students, maintain a passing GPA, and work in the state. This program is expected to increase tuition for paying students by about $200. In turn, more than 80 percent of New York families will be able to benefit from the program. If New York is willing make four-year education more affordable for its residents, why can’t California follow their lead?

California needs to address its gap in access to higher education. Initiatives in California to make community college more financially accessible will do little to assist low-income students in their pursuit of higher education. If California truly wants to provide more students with access to higher education and better opportunities, the state should increase spending on public universities and think seriously about ways to reduce or even eliminate tuition and fees for university students.

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