You know the feeling. You have downloaded the free game Candy Crush and you run out of lives on the highest level you have ever achieved. The game offers to let you keep playing only if you pay for more lives and you say yes because you are addicted. These “freemium” apps are mobile games or tools that are free to download and play. That is, until you want to access a certain feature. Then you have to pay. The current rush to “free community college” reminds us a lot of Candy Crush. From the America’s College Promise Act to legislation recently passed in Oregon and Tennessee to the numerous online options available (like those “freeish” programs outlined in Goldie Blumenstyk’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education), there are many enticing ways to opt in to playing the community college game (although restrictions do apply).
None of these avenues are actually free, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a new approach to the access challenge. We hope this encourages more people to enroll in credit-bearing programs that help them work toward a meaningful credential.
We can’t stop with access, however. The problem that actually stymies student success isn’t enrolling in community college so much as completing community college. And that challenge won’t be met by just removing the impression of financial barriers.
The problem with the freemium college model is that the most important factor that actually drives access and completion is still there-- time. The majority of community college students are balancing work and families along with their education. Tuition isn’t the only barrier. Indeed, many community colleges like the California Community College System are already so cheap as to be almost free. Nearly two-thirds of 17-19 year olds enrolled full-time in the system receive tuition waivers. Even for students who don’t qualify for waivers, tuition is less than $1,500 a year. More money is the easy part. Design is the actual problem.
Students struggle to integrate unpredictable work schedules with inflexible class schedules. The resulting pressure leads to students having to choose between present income and future potential. Simply removing the tuition barrier does little to ease this strain. Rent must still be paid. Child care must be paid. Transportation is required. Utilities are necessary. Internet access is critical. Food must be put on the table.
The question isn’t only how we make community college, already the best bargain in higher education, more affordable. More flexibility is needed so that students don’t have to make the choice between working and learning. However, we also know that students are more likely to succeed if they have structure. Policymakers need to find a way to weave flexibility into structure for both employment and education. This will help students achieve their larger goals while maintaining their day to day lives.
Employers need to understand that many of their employees are likely also students. Colleges need to understand that their students are likely also employees. And both need to understand that they can’t both be the student’s only priority.
What can be done? We should work with employers to help their employees prioritize their education. We can offer a tax incentive to employers that requires them offer predictable scheduling for employees enrolled in education or training leading to a post-secondary credential. This sort of predictability can help provide some much-needed structure and regularity, which will support their success.
Community colleges, which have heretofore defined access as being all things to all students, should instead focus on a specific set of programs offered multiple times a day in a predictable block schedule with hybrid options. An incentive grant program, at the state or federal level, would help community colleges develop flexible predictive scheduling, based in guided pathways, for working learners.
Ideally, work would reinforce learning and vice versa-- employment is a natural connection for guided pathways and critical non-formal education and skill building.
Tuition is not the root issue for most low-income students. It’s fundamentally about design. That’s the harder challenge, to be sure, but it’s also what makes the biggest difference in allowing students to pursue their educational goals.