Obama Pushes Free Community College: Could We Get What We Pay For?

Tom Hanks gives all the credit for his successful entertainment career to the community college in California from which he graduated.

“Chabot's a community college — and in the early 1970s, it was all free, save for the effort you put into it and the price of used textbooks,” Hanks wrote in an email supporting President Obama’s call for free tuition at America’s community colleges.

“I drove past Chabot's campus a few years ago with one of my kids and summed up my two years there this way: ‘That place made me what I am today.’”

President Obama wants to see 5 million more like Tom Hanks by 2020. To do that, Obama wants to provide a free two-year community college education to high school graduates, mostly at federal taxpayer expense.

He pushed that agenda this month at Macomb Community College in suburban Detroit.

“For every young person willing to work hard, I want community college to be as free and universal as high school,” Obama added. “I’ve been focused on community colleges. They are at the heart of the American dream.”

Obama used the occasion to announce the creation of the College Promise Advisory Board with the sole task of making two years of community college tuition free. He also established Heads Up America. Obama described it as an “independent campaign” to convince the nation of the importance of community colleges.

Unfortunately for Obama’s plan, experience has shown those community college students need more than a free ride.

Fact is, except for providing certification training for blue-collar workers, which is important, community colleges just don’t work very well.

Nationally, most high school graduates who enter community college with the idea of coming out with a two-year degree never get a diploma, whether they paid for the experience or not.

Since Obama made his most recent pitch for free community college tuition in Michigan, we will look at how community colleges are doing in Michigan, as well as the nation.

But we will begin by looking at an effort to send every high school graduate in one city in Michigan to college, free of charge.

The Kalamazoo Promise is a program funded by an anonymous donor that provides free college tuition to every student who graduates from high school in Kalamazoo, Mich.

In a way, it’s a dream that has yet to come true. The Kalamazoo Promise shows the fallacy of Obama’s assumption that if we only send more students to college, we will have more people with college degrees.

A study by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution released in August, the tenth anniversary of Kalamazoo Promise, showed that although more Kalamazoo high school grads than ever enrolled in college, most did not do very well.

The Brookings study showed Kalamazoo high school graduates were no more likely than other Michigan high school graduates to have earned 24 college credits within sixteen months of graduating from high school.

Nor did the Kalamazoo Promise solve the problem of racial disparity in four-year institutions.

The study showed “white students were about twice as likely to have earned 24 credits than black students, as were middle class students compared to the economically disadvantaged. There are also wide gaps by race and economic background in the chances of enrolling in four-year college versus community college.”

The Brookings study also demonstrated another problem with the Obama plan to provide a free community college education: community colleges just don’t work very well for the Kalamazoo Promise students.

The Brookings study showed “just 21 percent of Kalamazoo high school graduates who enrolled in community colleges earned a postsecondary credential, compared to 65 percent who enrolled in a four year college.”

It isn’t just the Brookings study or Kalamazoo, Mich.