Free Community College Is Great, But It Doesn’t Solve Everything

The pandemic shows that students need help with more than tuition. A report from Memphis.

Back in 2019 in Memphis, when Mia A. was beginning her freshman year at Southwest Tennessee Community College, she felt like she had unlimited opportunities. Yes, her parents weren’t particularly supportive of more schooling after high school. The biggest problem was Mia’s father. African American and raised in Chicago, he received disability assistance for his back and neck pain, a burden carried from his work as a custodian. Mia’s mother had immigrated from North Africa with a certificate in cosmetology. Both wanted Mia to work to help support the family. But from an early age, Mia was enchanted by learning. “Books, I loved books,” she told me. “I write poetry, and my teachers encouraged me, and I just want to write more.” She also had the good fortune to live in Tennessee, the first state in the nation to offer free tuition at community colleges for in-state high school graduates, save for the undocumented. So Mia had a chance to move forward despite any parental misgivings.

She attended classes at Southwest’s main campus and loved the grounds and the beautiful library. Mia was easily completing her college-level work. After beginning her studies in the fall of 2018, she not only learned to navigate the rules and requirements of the institution, but also qualified for the dean’s list thanks to her high grades.

The young woman had been accepted to the University of Memphis, a four-year public institution, back in high school. But Mia’s father hadn’t allowed her to attend straight from high school. Even if he had, her high school counselor had encouraged even top students like Mia to take the free ride at community college, which many students across the country are doing, hoping to save about half the college cost by getting a community college associate’s degree first before transferring to a four-year university. To Mia, the free tuition seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Fueled by her enthusiasm, she spent the summer before her first semester at Southwest commuting an hour by bus to attend college preparation courses.

Her ultimate goal was to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and begin a career helping school-age children make it through the same kinds of struggles, such as poverty, violence, and housing instability, that she had experienced growing up in Memphis. The road to transferring between Southwest and the University of Memphis, however, would be steep. The community college recorded a transfer-out rate of well below 10 percent.

In a poor, southern region like the Memphis metropolitan area, attending community college is a significant achievement. Among graduates of the local public school system, little more than half pursue any higher education. At Southwest, only 10 percent of those who enroll complete their associate’s degree, despite the free tuition. While Mia graduated fifth in her high school class, she tested below college level in reading and math.

President Joe Biden has proposed to guarantee two free years of community college nationwide, with costs shared between the federal government and the states. The first lady, Jill Biden, teaches at a community college and is committed to the plan, which is part of the massive infrastructure package the administration unveiled in March. Still, passage is uncertain in a Congress that Democrats control by only the slimmest of margins.

Importantly, the Biden administration’s free community college plan also calls for increased funding and incentives for so-called wraparound services such as counseling, child care, transportation assistance, and the like. Such services are hardly incidental. For at-risk students like Mia, they frequently turn out to make all the difference between success and failure. (I’m not identifying a few of the students and their families in this article to protect their privacy and encourage more openness. I used a similar technique in my book on Detroit, Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises.)

Mia and her classmates need the new president’s help, because without more support, not only will students suffer, but the country will, too.

Access to the economic ladder provided by a community college degree has propelled graduates into higher-skilled jobs that generate higher tax revenues. Following the Great Recession, jobs for workers with post-secondary degrees led the recovery. In many ways, now that the country is emerging from the pandemic, it remains the community college moment.

When universal high school education was created early in the last century, there was a national recognition that the economy and the country demanded a workforce with those skills—math, literacy, writing, and so on. Today, it is increasingly accepted wisdom—rightfully so—that some kind of post-secondary education is just as vital and that community colleges have never been more important to all of our economic futures. This is the story of how hard it is to get that education, even with the promise of free tuition, and how the pandemic has made it more difficult still.

Though she had to continue living at home for college, Mia relished even limited freedom from her controlling father. After he dropped her off on campus each day, she would unspool her headscarf or remove her turban and tuck it away, letting her hair flow free.

For months, her dreams seemed boundless. She could envision an independent future for herself, with a professional credential and financial stability. Students from impoverished families, whose federal Pell Grants exceed the cost of community college tuition, receive the excess money as a refund check to use to support their basic needs. The students must complete their course work to retain the money. Mia planned to save up those refund checks to defray the costs of transferring to the University of Memphis and to buy herself a car so she wasn’t dependent on her father, who often drove her to class late and controlled her access to study groups and other important campus resources. But her plans went awry when he lost his disability benefits because he had not followed his treatment plan and trained his sights on Mia for financial help instead. She tried to explain that her refund money was essential to her ability to finish her degree, but her father yelled and guilt-tripped her, she said, for even considering turning her back on her family. Soon, Mia was paying the family’s rent.

“He was making me feel really bad, and I was just crying a lot,” Mia told me. Even her brother sided against her. “You’re just being selfish,” he said to her. “You don’t want to help your own family.”

Suffocated at home, Mia found refuge at the college and solace in her course work. She had friends who had already dropped out and she didn’t want that fate to befall her, so she stayed laser focused on the path before her.

Then the community college shut down last year because of COVID-19.

With Mia attending from home, easy classes became difficult. She had access to a free laptop through the community college, but she had no broadband internet at home. She found herself struggling to take exams using her father’s cell phone as a hotspot. Her siblings had to use the same hotspot to complete their schoolwork. As she tried to upload her answers, the system would crash.

Last year, with the spring semester finally completed and a long summer coping with COVID-19 restrictions before her, Mia hoped that the fall semester in 2020 would put her back on track. She wanted to find a summer job and save the salary, but her father forbade her from working. He wanted her to just stay home—an infuriating request. With college as a beacon, she spent the long months of June, July, and August trying to track down college advisers and struggling to select her classes. Warning signs appeared that her situation might not get better: She waited weeks for answers to her phone and email messages.

When it became clear that the fall semester would not begin in person, Mia felt a sinking sense of loss. Despite the technical deficiencies that had plagued her in the spring, she had earned top grades. But as the fall progressed, the achievements of the first year proved fragile. The previous year, just after arriving on campus as a new student, Mia had sniffed out an under-the-radar scholarship, which enabled her to gain free access to her textbooks. This year, with the changed financial climate, the scholarship seemed to no longer exist. In all her classes, she went without books, and, for the first time in her life, she earned Ds.

By the start of the new spring semester, Mia wondered how long she could continue.

Memphis ranks as one of the nation’s most impoverished urban communities. In this city, the childhood poverty rate approaches 45 percent, and 60 percent of public school students are considered economically disadvantaged by the school district. Even before the pandemic, Memphis community colleges were fighting to attract high school graduates, even though they were free.

Some of the shortage of applicants could be explained by a lack of a college-going culture and a deficit of understanding among students and families about why college would be worth sacrificing wages for a few years. This might sound shocking to families for whom getting their child into a good college is a years-long preoccupation. But one of the ironies of America today is that those who need higher education the most—people who are thinking of ending their learning years with high school—need to be convinced of the merits of more study, while those who are already in plum positions in life’s lottery know every distinction between the Ivy League schools.

A statewide report in Tennessee on bridging the gap between high school and college pointed to inadequate resources and guidance to set students on a college path. It recommended more college counselors and more advanced courses.Tennessee’s statewide free community college program, a model for programs across the country, appeared to be starting to achieve hard-fought gains. The promise of two free years of community college seemed to be creating a pathway into higher education for the most disadvantaged Memphis students. Many local public high schools like Mia’s made applying to the program a graduation requirement.

Now, however, the pandemic is crushing educational opportunities and thus economic mobility. First-time, full-time enrollment of Black male students in Tennessee’s free community college program, called Tennessee Promise, declined by 35 percent from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020. But it’s also important to study what effects the virus is having on low-income students who were already attending community college when the pandemic hit.

In 2015, when the first cohort of students entered Tennessee Promise, Memphis struggled with historic poverty and low educational attainment in high school diplomas or any kind of post-secondary degree. A logistics hub nestled on the banks of the Mississippi River, Memphis reflected the poverty of Mississippi to the south and Arkansas to the west. It lacked skilled workers to fill open jobs at its port, its busy cargo airport, and trucking and rail nodes. (The city is home to Federal Express’s headquarters.)

Signed into law in 2014, Tennessee Promise offered two years of tuition-free attendance at a Tennessee community or technical college. Over the next four years, application rates to the program in Memphis rose to nearly 90 percent. The number of people in the program increased by 30 percent from 2015 to 2018.

Over that same period, cities and states across the country offered similar programs, recognizing that post-secondary education was vital for competing with other states, not to mention a skilled international workforce. Tennessee Promise provided a blueprint for a national proposal from President Barack Obama—which the GOP-controlled Congress ultimately rejected—and successful initiatives in more than a dozen states and hundreds of cities. These “promise” programs are rooted in economic development goals—the idea that investment in residents’ education will build a better-educated workforce and promote growth. The programs, therefore, award community college scholarships not based on merit or need but on local residency. Reducing inequality is implicit, however, as most programs service school districts with many low-income students. A majority of these students who go on to post-secondary education already begin at community colleges. Students from low-income schools complete community college degrees at less than half the rate of students who graduate from high-income schools.

Despite their socioeconomic status, low-income students at community colleges seemed poised to weather COVID-19’s impact on higher education better than students at other institutions. They already commuted from home and paid no tuition, so they didn’t miss dorms or suddenly have to come up with checks for the bursar’s office. Many had already taken a few online classes and were used to learning outside a traditional classroom. Instead, though, the pandemic exposed those students’ unique vulnerabilities. Whereas most four-year institutions have undergone little change in enrollment, and some have enjoyed increases, community college student counts have shrunk significantly during the pandemic. Even for those low-income students hanging on in community college, the likelihood of graduating seems more distant than ever.

In Memphis, Mia’s boyfriend, Rod, like many of her community college classmates, appeared to use the increased flexibility of the pandemic-driven shift to virtual learning to engage in behaviors that correlate with higher dropout rates.

Rod graduated from the same high school as Mia, also in the honors program. A lanky, sentimental jokester, he aspired to attend the University of Memphis, but it seemed too expensive. In fact, without encouragement from Mia, he probably would not have ended up going to college at all. His mother, who was raising five children on her own, counted on Rod to start earning money.

During his first year at Southwest Tennessee Community College, Rod realized that he enjoyed working with his hands and was interested in a career involving cars. Despite being in his high school honors program, Rod, like most Memphis public high school graduates entering the state’s public two- and four-year colleges, graduated with remedial needs in math, reading, and English. At Memphis’s Westwood High last year, just 20 graduates enrolled in a public in-state college, and all of them required remedial math. Even before the pandemic, Rod had been growing increasingly frustrated with his remedial courses. They repeated his high school curriculum, and he felt eager to leave high school behind and develop more advanced knowledge in engineering. He wanted more hands-on classes as soon as possible.

When college moved online, however, virtual courses put the kibosh on anything hands-on. As the 2020–21 school year began, promising only more remote learning, Rod decided to focus less on school and more on working, and found a job packing boxes at a local warehouse. Though he was saving money, he earned far less at the warehouse than he would if he finished community college, and still less than if he transferred and completed a four-year degree.

Research indicates that post-secondary students who work more than 15 hours a week are more likely to drop out. Fifty-nine percent of low-income students who work 15 hours or more, which leaves them with less time to study and complete assignments, have a C average or lower. Take the case of Linda, an adult returning student and Rod’s classmate. Throughout her first year of community college, she worked part-time at a free elementary after-school program. To arrive there punctually by public bus, she regularly left class early.

Faced with a virtual school year, Linda decided to pick up double shifts at nursing homes. Most days during the semester, she worked all day, moving from one job to the next and arriving home around 7 p.m. After dinner, before falling asleep, she watched as many online lectures and completed as many assignments as she could.

Two years earlier, Linda had returned to high school in her mid-50s, taking GED courses to earn her diploma, having dropped out of high school one course short. Representatives of Tennessee Promise visited her class, and she concluded that she had nothing to lose by continuing her education at community college. After enrolling, she joked about how she could still “smell the school lunch” on most of her young classmates.

During her first year at community college, Linda decided that she wanted to study for a bachelor’s degree after completing her associate’s degree. She took advantage of the supplemental supports available within the college and enrolled alongside Mia in the gateway summer program of preparation courses and workshops. Linda sought out mentors and regularly pounded on her adviser’s door, but she faced problems. It took awhile for her to hear that she might have free access to a school laptop. When she asked for one, the person behind the desk told her that only students with Pell Grants qualified. The woman assumed, wrongly, that if she had Tennessee Promise she was not receiving a Pell Grant, when, in fact, she was. (Linda continues to believe she is ineligible, and eventually found a used laptop to buy.)

For this reason, when the pandemic sent students scurrying online last spring, Linda found herself taking a statistics class on her cell phone. The class, required for graduation, seemed more like a program of work than a college course in the traditional sense. The professor did not give lectures or hold virtual class sessions. Instead, he provided a series of assignments and tests for students to work through on their own. Linda felt lost, and after emailing the professor questions and not receiving answers, she gave up.

She failed the course. And though Linda considered retaking it over the summer, her adviser returned her emails so slowly that she decided to take the summer off and wait for fall to work out what to do. When the next school year arrived, she did not enroll in statistics.

During the pandemic, the experience of students like Mia, Rod, and Linda has progressed differently from those living on four-year campuses who have endured outbreaks in their dorms and periodic isolation and quarantine. But the oversight of the free community college students and their ability to persist appears far more tenuous.

Studies show that along with too many hours working at jobs, low course loads also cost students their momentum, making them less likely to graduate. This may sound counterintuitive—surely, a low course load would make it easier to graduate, especially for those with other obligations. But studies show that the longer a degree takes, the greater the possibility for financial or family obstacles to get in the way. Fewer than a quarter of part-time students receive any kind of credential within eight years. Among first-time community college students, those who attend part-time find themselves half as likely to complete a credential within eight years as those who attend full-time.

In Memphis, another classmate of Mia’s, Yana, took community college classes toward a degree in radiation technology. Drawn to the stable, in-demand field, she could recite by heart various radiation technology career progression paths and their expected salary tiers. But her situation at home wasn’t exactly conducive to continuing education. She lived with four siblings—one still in middle school—and the twin babies of an absent older brother, plus two children of one of her sisters. Yana’s parents didn’t live with them. Her father left when she was a child, and her mother had moved out to be with a boyfriend. Like Mia, Yana had loved the college library, which offered her peace, quiet, and a respite from chores, including looking after the babies. Last spring, after the community college shut down, she failed three of her virtual classes.

Eventually, to avoid the chaos of her home, she moved in with her boyfriend, Kenny, who was still in high school. By fall, Yana had decided that she didn’t see herself as a “STEM person” after all, referring to the collective term for science, technology, engineering, and math. Without consulting anyone, she switched her major to dance and enrolled in only two classes. She supplemented the courses with two jobs, one at the same warehouse where Rod worked and another at a big-box store. She intended to add some non-college dance classes to her schedule eventually, but never did. As the spring semester began, she spoke openly about dropping out.

At least Yana no longer had to care for young children. Along with more work and fewer courses, child care increases the likelihood of dropping out. Because minding children takes time away from studying, most student parents leave college without obtaining a degree. However, research on student parents ignores the child care roles even nonparents perform by taking care of siblings, nieces and nephews, and other young relatives. During the pandemic, with public schools often closed and recreation limited, caretaking responsibilities among low-income community college students have increased.

Across town, another classmate, Tracy, lived at home with her mother and stepfather, her five-year-old sister, and five younger cousins whose mother had been deported. An uncle also moved in.

Tracy shared a bedroom with her sister and two of her cousins. When her sister and cousins were off at school all day, Tracy found the arrangements difficult but tenable. Now, with elementary school turned virtual and all the kids at home, Tracy has struggled to help her mother take care of the children while also keeping up with her course work. Because she lacks her own room, she has listened to online lectures and completed assignments late at night, once her roommates and the rest of the household have gone to sleep. The late nights provide quiet, but they have drained her motivation.

Tennessee’s free community college program enjoys a relatively stable financial position, even as the pandemic calls into question what the future of such programs across the country might look like. Tennessee funds Tennessee Promise with lottery revenues that the state has built into a robust endowment. Similar programs appear more dependent on general state and local income, and budget cuts, looming in the absence of further federal aid, could target the programs. Since the arrival of COVID-19, bills to establish or expand these programs in several states have stalled. In April 2020, Virginia’s governor put the commonwealth’s free community college program on hold.

Piecemeal budget cuts would seem to present a disaster scenario for low-income community college students, who have already been struggling. Students like Mia, Rod, Linda, Yana, and Tracy have depended on supports and services outside the formal classroom setting. Without family members who have trod the college path before them, they have relied on consistent advice from advisers and mentors. Without adequate preparation, they have needed tutors and time to focus on classes and study. And without spare cash or savings, they have required assistance beyond tuition for supplements like computers and textbooks that, in practice, have made the difference between passing or failing.

By the start of the spring 2021 semester, Mia and Rod had taken note of a pernicious rumor that free community college would not be free after all. Instead, the tuition subsidy constituted a loan, which they would have to repay. Terrified, Mia and Rod wondered how they would be able to pay back the tuition for the three semesters they had already completed. In reality, Tennessee Promise, like most other free community college programs, has offered last-dollar funding to participants. This has meant that the program first draws from students’ federal and state grant aid before accessing local scholarship funds, none of which students must repay. This is why Karen, though a Tennessee Promise student, received a Pell Grant and qualified for a free laptop. Federal grant aid likely covered all of Mia, Rod, Linda, Yana, and Tracy’s community college tuition. The maximum federal Pell Grant of $6,345 in the 2020–21 academic year easily covers their in-state local community college tuition of $4,352. For them, community college would have been accessible even in the absence of Tennessee Promise. They would not, however, have decided to attend college without it.

“If there hadn’t been Tennessee Promise, I would not be in school, because I could not afford it,” Linda told me. All of the students I interviewed echoed her understanding.

In 2015 when Obama proposed a federal initiative for free community college, he advocated for what’s known as a first-dollar program. Had his proposal passed, the federal government would have covered 75 percent of tuition and fees, with states covering the rest. Students who qualified for further federal and state aid would have been able to keep those funds. Instead of the money displacing the program’s tuition subsidy, as it has in programs including Tennessee Promise, low-income students would have retained the subsidy to spend on items such as rent and transportation that low-income students in last-dollar programs have struggled to pay for.

The experiences of these Tennessee students show how much they would have benefited from additional subsidies like those proposed by Obama and the need for the additional services the Biden administration supports. Even with free tuition, myriad other costs can knock students off track, leaving their dreams derailed. Money can help, so it’s worth applauding the $39 billion added to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund as part of the president’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which will provide further financial aid for students affected by COVID-19.

This past year has been challenging for everyone, but more so for the students I spoke with. For them, trying to rise from poor and working-class homes, and dealing with family disputes and dysfunction, COVID-19 has both exacerbated their problems and shined a light on those that existed before the pandemic and will endure after it is over.

Financial woes afflict community college students even when their tuition is covered by programs like Tennessee Promise and a latticework of federal programs. More direct monies to students will help significantly, but they won’t solve the problem of keeping them in community college even after the pandemic has passed. The students I met have far less social capital—parents who attended college, familiarity with how to get assistance—that can help them at Southwest or other two-year schools. Their doggedness and ambition are admirable, but their study skills aren’t honed, and their burdens are serious.

Making it worse, community colleges don’t have the budgets to support their students the way other schools do. Indeed, public four-year schools, whose students tend to be wealthier and whiter, spend on average three times more per student each year than do community colleges.

The good news is that relatively modest infusions of funds can make a huge difference. Since 2007, for instance, the City University of New York’s community colleges have offered a program that provides full-time students with intensive wraparound supports, from textbook waivers to subway cards to greater access to academic advisers. The program, called ASAP, has been replicated in several Ohio two-year schools. Rigorous evaluations found that ASAP students graduated in three years at nearly double the rate of other full-time students at those colleges and were 50 percent more likely to transfer to a four-year college. Though ASAP costs around $3,000 more per student up front, it helped so many more students graduate that the overall cost per degree in the program was lower than it was for other students attending the community colleges.

COVID-19 has only intensified the need for these kinds of extra services.Mia, for instance, managed to pass her fall semester by fighting for extra credit, but without textbooks for the spring she is struggling again. She complains of learning nothing in virtual classes that don’t schedule any online meetings and of the difficulty of completing assignments correctly without more attention and instruction. After calling the Academic Counseling Center at the University of Memphis and learning that the advisers there could only help their current students, she has decided to wait and call back again over the summer when she finishes community college completely. Because the University of Memphis accepted her out of high school, she assumes that the phone call and an official transcript will be sufficient for her to enroll there in the fall. But she wonders how many of her community college credits will actually transfer.

With luck and persistence, Mia may well be on her way to earning her degree. That’s not the case, unfortunately, for many of her classmates. For them and millions of other community college students, the Biden plan can’t come soon enough.

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Jodie Adams Kirshner

Jodie Adams Kirshner, a bankruptcy law scholar, is a research professor at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. Her latest book is Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises.