Free tuition doesn't mean more degree completion
A thoughtful essay by Michael Bernick in Time.
Today in California, the majority of community college students, and nearly all low-income students, pay few, if any fees. As business columnist Kathleen Pender has detailed, almost half of the state’s community college students receive a waiver on all fees. Federal Pell grants and the American Opportunity Tax Credit, for which low- and even middle-income students are eligible, are additional financial supports. Tuition is not a significant obstacle to enrollment for Californians at all incomes, and hasn’t been for some years.
Instead, at the top of concerns for community college administrators is the low student completion level. The majority of community college students leave without a degree or certificate. A 2010 study by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University Sacramento concluded that within six years of enrollment, only 30 percent of California community students earn an associate or bachelor’s degree. This study finding is consistent with national completion rates, which several estimates have put in the range of 30 to 40 percent.
That low completion rate is rooted in the high number of students who enter community colleges with low math and reading levels. A series of reports over the past decade have found that roughly two-thirds of students enter California community colleges with math and reading levels below those needed to complete college level classes. This gap in basic skills is the main reason students leave without a degree or certificate.