'Free' Does Not Mean 'Valuable': Why Free Community College Needs Strings Attached

We applaud President Barack Obama's many steps toward educational and career access for all Americans. We believe that for the free community college initiative to deliver needed results, we need clarity on the problems facing community colleges, strong accountability measures, and solutions to drive student success, not simply access.
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Co-written by Sarah Lyman Kravits and Maureen Breeze

We applaud President Barack Obama's many steps toward educational and career access for all Americans. We believe that for the free community college initiative to deliver needed results, we need clarity on the problems facing community colleges, strong accountability measures, and solutions to drive student success, not simply access.

Here are the challenges we see.

The student demographics are complex. More than 50 percent of students entering a two-year college are placed in remedial classes, and four in 10 of those students in community college will not earn a degree. Returning and nontraditional students face additional problems, like adapting to advances in technology, getting into the practice of studying, and balancing work, life, and family demands with school.

In America, college as a requirement to get a decent job is a new concept, funneling more first-generation to college students into the system than ever before. While we can have the expectation that all students should go to college, first-generation students often lack role models and social/emotional support structures to support this expectation.

In addition, many community college faculty are adjuncts. While they may be content experts, rarely do they have a deep understanding of the complex student populations represented in their classrooms such as ELL, learning disabled, and low-income students. Many adjunct faculty are underpaid, work at multiple institutions, and are responsible for teaching core skills to students who may wrestle with day-to-day issues that often undermine their ability to complete a degree or certificate program.

Here's how we can flesh out the free college idea with these much-needed accountabilities.

Maintain and set high expectations. Students receiving a free education should post a 3.0 GPA, higher than the 2.5 GPA the proposal suggests. Employers demand above-average competence and ingenuity. Connecting mental aptitude, grit, and persistence with what employers require and demand is key.

To avoid community college becoming the new high school, we need to raise expectations, reading levels, and exposures during high school, including universal offerings of summer reading and enrichment programs for low-income students. Rewards for completion each summer could include foundation funding for four-year or graduate studies so that effort and self-direction are fostered in our otherwise test- and grade-driven college preparation process.

Make pipeline improvements. Students must possess competencies in math, reading and writing skills before entering college. While we can't wave a magic wand to improve this instantly, we need higher standards to stop the hemorrhaging of unprepared college students, most of whom are first-generation, attempting college-level work with eighth-grade math and reading skills. Rigor, habits of success, and challenges need to take root long before seniors graduate.

Recruit community mentors and role models. Students need to be invested in their education and know where they are going. Faculty, advisors, and coaches at high schools and community colleges can offer far more effective guidance in identifying personal goals and passions, majors, and careers and fields of interest, especially for first-generation to college students who don't have role models demonstrating how to make the most of the college experience. Without this, we have rudderless students filling seats and wasting time, amassing debt and drifting from class to class -- a scenario in which everybody loses.

Through alliances with AARP and businesses that hire new grads, we could recruit and train rock star retirees and corporate volunteers who can mentor, inspire, and guide students through their first two years of college. They can work in tandem on college and career experience goals and support advisors by connecting learning to workplace skills and expectations. Goodwill Industries features a model for their mentors that can scale and provide consistency of outcomes.

Provide free college success courses. Set up pre-college success courses for students receiving free tuition. Such courses should focus on practical skills -- setting expectations, study skills, financial literacy, and career exploration. Completing such a course can be part of the accrued badges and certifications that help students develop the learning and professional skills linked to increased earnings, valuable connections, and promotion pathways.

Networking is key for global success and is fast becoming the primary mode of job acquisition. Work with local transfer colleges to set up a peer mentor program featuring four-year college mentors along with veterans and displaced workers. This way, community college graduates can work as a mentee with a professional mentor and a peer mentor, both of whom will teach collaboration skills needed in the world outside school.

Offer targeted professional development for adjunct faculty. Most of community college is taught by adjuncts, few of whom have training in facilitating the "flipped classroom" and coaching students -- especially first generation to college, veterans, and other populations with unique issues and opportunities -- to overcome obstacles. Students need strong rapport with instructors and other human resources on campus. Without this, the personal connection deteriorates and students fall away.

To have the ability to champion the diverse populations at community college, adjuncts must be trained in coaching skills, facilitation, and fulfilling the needs of particular student populations. Adjuncts can benefit from additional training and certification for the important work they do in helping these students understand how focus, discipline, and determination can move them toward the future they envision.

With generous donors like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg and others dedicating funds to education, we need to be mindful about a higher return on investment. There are some four million open jobs in America. We need every community college grad to either start a company, work for a traditional company, or transfer to a four-year college. Whatever path they choose, they will need a strong sense of purpose. Achieving this goal will require continued collaboration to define the commitment that each key stakeholder will make, starting with students themselves.

Carol J. Carter is a student-success author (Keys to Success) and international expert and the founder of GlobalMindED.org.

Sarah Lyman Kravits is a student-success author and faculty member at Montclair State University.

Maureen Breeze is a lead trainer at LifeBound Academic Coaching and is a student-success expert and author.

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