Should Community College Be Free?

Education Next Issue Cover

Education Next talks with Sara Goldrick-Rab and Andrew Kelly



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WINTER 2016 / VOL. 16, NO. 1

ednext_XVI_1_forum_img01President Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college, issued earlier this year, seems to have laid down a marker for the Democratic Party. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is touting his plan for free four-year public college on the primary trail; Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren called for “debt-free college” in a high-profile speech; and former senator and U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton has proposed her own plans for tuition-free community college and “no-loan” tuition at four-year public colleges.

In this forum, Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and co-author of a paper that helped shape the president’s plan, calls for an even more expansive effort—one that includes funding for students’ living and other expenses while they pursue an associate degree at any public institution. Andrew Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the Obama plan will not address low rates of college readiness and student success but will strain public budgets and crowd out innovation.

The Economy Needs More Workers with Associate Degrees,” by Sara Goldrick-Rab

Tuition Is Not the Main Obstacle to Student Success,” by Andrew P. Kelly




Comment on this article
  • Paralegal Student says:

    I am a native Californian and I am a non-traditional aged paralegal student at a California Community College, like the majority of the paralegal students in my American Bar Association accredited program. We are working and taking night classes as we have time.

    I am an ‘A’ student, a member of the national honor society, and I am blocked from graduating from my program with my paralegal certificate.

    There are many obstacles to Student Success in California, one of them being the non-portability of courses taking at another college, including another California Community College. The California Community Colleges in Sacramento routinely approves academic programs for community college catalogs that limits the number of units that a student can transfer from another college.

    I had to leave another local community college’s A.B.A. paralegal program during the Great Recession due to the severity of the cutbacks and the inability to get classes. I was an ‘A’ student at that college too.

    Now, only 12 semester units of my first community college’s paralegal course work will be accepted by my second community college.

    Between both colleges I have completed all mandatory and elective courses. Community College No. 2 has rejected 34 units of electives, all A’s from my former college (all of which transfer to the California State University system and some courses transfer to the University of California system) and now requires that I stay for a couple of more years and re-take paralegal electives, classes that I took and earned A’s in at my former community college.

    English, Math, History, Political Science and a whole host of other courses transfer between community colleges, but paralegal courses that transfer to the state colleges/university won’t transfer to a fellow community college? Outrageous!

    This is a huge waste of tax dollars (federal and state) and my time and money. Additionally, I am out hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income, benefits, and retirement by not being able to obtain my paralegal certificate (a requirement of CA law to be called a paralegal and for employers to bill for my time). I have been told point blank in job interviews that employers can’t hire me because I can’t graduate with my paralegal certificate.

    When I wrote higher education researchers across the nation, they said that this issue of non-portability of units was a well-known problem, that legislators and policy makers hadn’t solved it and didn’t seem interested in solving it.

    For those of us on the front lines having to deal with these archaic, punitive policies…it’s NOT funny. It has real and dire consequences in our lives.

    The more people my family and I have spoken to about these obstacles to Student Success, the more stories we’ve heard from others who’ve hit the same road blocks to obtaining a higher education.

    *A paralegal moved to CA from another state and the local community college would NOT accept her American Bar Association accredited paralegal courses from her prior college. They demanded that she re-take all courses again from scratch. She couldn’t do that and refused to do that as she was working full-time. She found a private college with an A.B.A. accredited paralegal program, it was more expensive, but they were willing to accept her out-of-state courses and she was able to graduate sooner and better her life. She said she would NEVER use the CA Community Colleges.

    *Friends’ daughter would like to become a nurse. She was at a private, accredited college but had to leave when one of her parents was laid off and they couldn’t afford to send her there. She went to a CA Community College. The CA Community College would not accept her private college’s Chemistry, Biology and other classes for nursing and required that she repeat them. She did. The community college then had cutbacks and she had to change community colleges. Her second community college would not accept her first community college’s science classes. She’s now taking Chemistry, Biology and other classes for nursing for the THIRD TIME! She and her family are so fed up with the CA Community Colleges that she applied for and was accepted by an out-of-state’s college’s nursing program. She is leaving CA so she can get her nursing education.

    Students don’t have unlimited supplies of time and money to obtain a higher education. We live in a fluid society, where people move, where there are cutbacks to programs, and students persist. In CA, students are punished for their persistence and not rewarded with graduation and degrees.

    The CA Community Colleges, and Title 5 of our state law that governs them, needs a massive overhaul and a much more centralized structure (like the University of California Regents) instead of every college district being a fiefdom with its own rules.

    I’m an ‘A’ student and the system can’t graduate me!

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