The high cost of free community college

President Obama generated a huge amount of press recently when he unveiled an ambitious proposal to make community college free for tens of millions of Americans.

The proposal has generated accolades from those who support greater college access and skepticism from those who predict much of the money will be wasted.

It's worth examining what kind of job community colleges have been doing in educating Americans. Unfortunately, the statistics aren't encouraging. For too many students, the community college has become the higher-ed equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.

According to the Digest of Education Statistics, only 19.5 percent of first-time, full-time students graduate within 150 percent of when they should receive a degree. For a two-year associate degree, that would mean fewer than one in five students graduate within three years. A report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center concluded that just 20 percent of community college students graduate to four-year schools.

Access versus capacity

Making community college free could actually hurt access to these institutions that have traditionally served as a higher-ed gateway for lower income and nontraditional students. A spike in community-college popularity could make enrolling in classes for current and new students more difficult. California provides a recent example of how access can be threatened when classes are free or close to it.

California community colleges, which educate roughly one out of every four community college students in the country, have historically offered the cheapest tuition among all 50 states. To encourage access to all comers, California has kept tuition extremely low, which has helped create a huge demand.

For years, this demand and low tuition wasn't able to generate enough revenue to support the massive system. This led to a crisis that manifested in courses being canceled, long waiting lists for classes and campuses that could no longer afford summer classes.

The California crisis was at least temporarily averted in 2012 when taxpayers approved a four-year sales tax increase, as well as a temporary higher tax on the wealthiest Californians.

While California represents an extreme case, community-college capacity is an issue throughout the country. It's a problem that a study by the American Association of Community Colleges explored in its report, Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation's Future. With tuition kept low to encourage access, "community colleges are not funded at a level permitting them to perform the monumental tasks expected of them."

Rather than directing more students to attend community colleges, the money could be better spent helping students already in the system to succeed. It's not sexy, but meaningful academic support, career and transfer counseling and more class availability would help reduce the dropout rate among students who want an education.

Also extremely helpful would be a national focus on what's arguably the biggest hurdle for community college students: losing their hard-earned college credits when they transfer to four-year institutions. In a 2014 study funded by the Gates Foundation, researchers from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York concluded that lost academic credits are the prime obstacle for community college students hoping to obtain a bachelor's degree.