President Obama’s community college idea could be made simpler

Culinary classes are popular at Johnson County Community College.
Culinary classes are popular at Johnson County Community College. The Kansas City Star

The goal of President Barack Obama’s proposed tuition-free community college program is exactly right. Making at least two years of college universally affordable would boost the nation’s competitiveness and narrow the growing inequality gap.

As usual, the devil is in the details. And there are a slew of those in the president’s plan to partner with states to make tuition free for students who are on a graduation or career track and earn at least a 2.5 grade point average.

▪ How would a program keep out the rapacious actors in the for-profit college sector? These schools, with notoriously poor outcomes for students, are stellar at wooing politicians and raking in government loans and grants.

▪ What would be done to make sure students are ready to successfully complete college work? Too many students spend their first months or even years in community college taking remedial classes to make up for deficiencies in their high school preparedness.

▪ While community colleges have a vital role in career preparedness, they are questionable gateways to college degree programs. Nationwide, only about 15 percent of students who enroll first at a community college go on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Students with similar qualifications are much more likely to earn a degree if they start at a four-year college.

▪ Tuition and fees account for only about one-fifth the cost of attending community college, according to a recent study from College Board. Students this year are paying a nationwide average of $3,347. Pell Grants cover and even exceed that amount for low-income students, but many still struggle to pay for housing, transportation, books and other expenses. Even with free tuition, students from impoverished families would likely need more assistance.

Universal access would improve community colleges by giving families of all incomes a stake in their success. But Obama’s plan, to be promoted at his State of the Union speech next week, won’t work if designed as a top-heavy federal program.

Most states, including Missouri and Kansas, already recognize the potential of their community colleges. Why not offer them block grants to design their own universal access programs?

States understand the strengths and weaknesses of all levels of their education systems. With funding and proper boundaries, the states are best positioned to help students take advantage of free access to the first level of higher education.