Is Free Community College the Solution?

Sara Goldrick-Rab, Temple University, Nancy Kendall, University of Wisconsin-Madison

President Obama has proposed two years of free community college for up to nine million students across the nation each year, building on recommendations for a national program devised by SSNers Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall.

As Goldrick-Rab and Kendall explain in a New York Times article, college affordability is critical because “going to college is important to all families, as it increases the odds of upward mobility for children born into low- and moderate-income families, and protects against falling downward mobility for middle- and upper-income families.” Goldrick-Rab’s role in shaping the President’s plan is detailed by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Goldrick-Rab discusses the economic benefits of Obama’s plan in an OpEd for The Guardian. She writes that, “free community college has the potential to meet the immediate needs of employers, who often say that they cannot find potential candidates with needed skills.” Two years of support would help lower- and middle-class students who are increasingly deterred by staggering college costs.

The President’s proposal may not immediately move forward. Congress must approve and individual states have to agree to devote a share of funds. Even if this plan is eventually enacted, more still needs to be done to reduce college costs by covering not just tuition, but also housing, books, and other costs. Goldrick-Rab has developed this analysis.

Goldrick-Rab and Kendall call for a broader plan funding two years of free college at two- or four-year university programs. In a recent paper for the Lumina Foundation and accompanying SSN Key Findings brief, they suggest efficient ways to fund this initiative through a combination of federal and state resources, as detailed in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. Goldrick-Rab also highlights the economic impact of making community college more accessible in a recent Brookings Institution paper.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is a Professor of Educational Policy & Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the Founding Director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, the nation's first and only applied research institute aimed at finding effective ways to make college more affordable. She is also the co-editor of Reinventing Financial Aid, published by Harvard Education Press in 2014, and was the 2014 recipient of the Early Career Award of the American Educational Research Association.

Nancy Kendall is Associate Professor of Education Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specializes in comparative, international, and global education policy. She conducts comparative ethnographic research on global development education policies and their impact on children and families. Kendall was a 2009 postdoctoral fellow supported by the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation.

January 2015