All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talent.
— John F. Kennedy
By Hajar Ahmed, Education Reform Now Policy Intern and
Mary Nguyen Barry, Education Reform Now Policy Analyst
In tonight's State of the Union address, President Obama will argue for his proposal to make community college tuition-free for all students. (Disclosure: Before Obama's proposal was unveiled, Education Reform Now noted our general support for the principles and rhetoric underlying the plan -- increased financial support for college access and affordability along with an accompanying expectation of heightened personal responsibility from aid recipients.)
The strongest argument critics of the Obama free community college tuition proposal have made so far is that it's not targeted to needy students and instead constitutes a boon for those from middle-income and wealthy families. But our review of the data suggests otherwise. Federal demographic data indicate that community colleges cater far more to underrepresented minorities, first-generation, and low-income students than traditional public four-year and private, non-profit four-year colleges.
Below is a more detailed breakdown of the income distribution of certificate- or degree-seeking undergraduate community college students. Low-income students make up almost two-thirds of all students that attend community colleges while those from families with incomes above $117,500 (the top 20% of families nationally) account for barely six percent of all community college students.
But here's the real eye-opener. Critics of the Obama plan contend that low-income community college students already get Pell Grants, which at the current maximum level of $5,730, is more than enough to cover community college tuition. Set aside the common reply that the Obama plan would open up Pell Grant aid to community college students for use on room, board, and other expenses.
It turns out that according to the same federal data, while 66 percent of students enrolled in a certificate or degree program at American community colleges have family incomes low enough typically to qualify for a Pell Grant (below $50,000 a year), only 39 percent of current community college students receive Pell Grants. In other words, 27 percent of current community college students who are from low-income families are not receiving Pell Grants to help pay for tuition, fees, room, board or any other college expenses. This Pell Grant enrollment gap at community colleges is more than twice as large as the gap at traditional public four-year institutions and private, non-profit four-year schools. David Baime, Senior Vice President for Government Relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, calls the gap "a little tragedy."
We surmise the community college Pell Grant gap is due in part to a combination of low awareness about federal financial aid opportunities among community college students and a daunting federal financial aid application process. Many students may not realize that the Pell Grant is available to help pay for all college expenses - including tuition, textbooks, and non-campus room and board. They may think Pell aid is available only for tuition at high tuition schools. Nearly half of community college students are enrolled part-time or less-than-half-time. Many of them may not realize that the Pell Grant is still available on a pro-rated basis, and therefore never file a federal financial aid application.
The bottom line: With over two-thirds of current students at community colleges being low-income, we can expect they'll be the largest group of students to benefit from the Obama proposed free tuition policy. And for almost one-third of those low-income students, the Obama free community college tuition plan is likely to constitute the only federal financial aid they'll claim.
If students from high-income families were likely to be drawn to community colleges by low-tuition as compared to a four-year school alternative, they'd already be flocking to community colleges. But they're not. The Obama community college plan would deliver for students from families that need the help the most. Assertions otherwise are bunk.
By Mary Nguyen Barry, Education Reform Now Policy Analyst
Ever since President Obama proposed a new college ratings system that would determine different levels of federal aid for high and low performing institutions, colleges and their lobbyists have cried that it's an "impossible" task or that any ratings system must include a "risk adjustment" for student characteristics.
But it's not impossible to rate colleges based on access, affordability, and student success measures. Guidance counselors and others have used the web tool College Results Online for the past 10 years. And yes, the final Obama system should adjust college ratings for student characteristics - but not in the way the no-college-accountability crowd wants.
Because what critics really mean by "risk adjustment" (but only say in private) is that the Administration should have lower graduation expectations for some students based on their race or family income. That's what George W. Bush, for all his failures, was right to criticize years ago as the soft bigotry of low expectations.
President Obama's new college ratings system should adjust for student characteristics by considering students' academic preparation, not immutable characteristics like race and gender or factors out of their control like parental education and family income. On top of that, the ratings should adjust for institutional characteristics - like size and funding. It wouldn't make sense to compare graduation rates at Southern Vermont College with those at Harvard University. Those two schools enroll students with completely different levels of academic preparation, not to mention their differences in size, wealth, and selectivity. But it makes all the sense in the world to compare Southern Vermont to similar colleges that serve similarly prepared students in terms of SAT/ACT scores and incoming high school grade point average - two important factors that impact completion.
When you do that "peer comparison," you'll see that Southern Vermont does a middling job of its educating its students: only one-third (35%) of full-time students graduate within six years of initial enrollment. But it does a particularly poor job of educating its underrepresented minority students - only 17 percent graduate within six years. Defenders may want to attribute these low graduation rates to the fact that 60 percent of its freshmen are from low-income families, 15 percent are from underrepresented minority groups, and that many are weakly prepared for college, with a median SAT score of 925 out of 1600.
But that can't explain why their peer colleges - like Anna Maria College and American International College, both in nearby Massachusetts - graduate their students at much higher rates. Anna Maria graduates nearly half of its students (47 percent) and one-third of their minority students (31 percent). And though American International College has similar overall graduation rates (39 percent) to Southern Vermont, they graduate their minority students at a rate over twice at high (38 percent). Both of these colleges also serve high proportions of low-income, underrepresented minority students with low academic preparation.
Examples like these abound. And what's helpful about the peer institution comparison technique is that it does a particularly useful job of identifying extremely low-performers. In fact, 9 times out of 10, a college with a graduation rate below 15 percent will fall in the bottom of their peer groups as identified by College Results Online.
Private Truett-McConnell College in Georgia, for example, was at the bottom of Southern Vermont's peer group with a 9 percent six-year graduation rate. Meanwhile, peers like Averett University in Virginia and Cazenovia College in New York graduate their students at much higher rates (40 percent and 47 percent).
Or consider Texas Southern University (TSU), a public university in Houston, Texas, with its 12 percent graduation rate. Peer colleges - like Prairie View A&M and North Carolina Central University - graduate their students at rates more than three times as high, at 36 percent and 43 percent.
Even the for-profit, Phoenix-based Western International University with its 3 percent graduation rate can look up to the higher graduation rates of many of its for-profit peers.
The Obama administration doesn't need a contentious risk adjustment formula linked to family income or immutable student characteristics to rate college performance. It should simply identify high and low-performers based on how they stack up to peer institutions serving students who are similarly academically prepared.
Students who are of color, are the first in their families to go to college, or come from low-income families aren't a risk. They're individuals. On the other hand, the data shows that some colleges are a risk, because absent any magical statistical adjustment their graduation rates are both appallingly so low and overwhelmingly worse than peer institutions serving similar students. Those are the institutions the Obama college ratings system should warn people against. And if bottom performers can't turn around with notice and assistance, they eventually should be shut down. No excuses.
Over the last several months, top Democratic officials have asked for our thoughts on how to respond to the public's thirst for improved levels of college affordability. You can find here our suggested strategy in quick to read powerpoint form.
Our recommendations are geared toward federal policymakers, but the underlying principles are applicable and in many cases already have been embraced at the state and local level. Models can be found with promising results in Indiana, North Carolina, and Michigan.
Early signs are that we can expect more nationally on this issue starting as soon as this week. Stay tuned.