Free College: Does it really help with retention?

Recently, there has been some attention to waiving the cost of tuition for the first year for all first time students across California’s community colleges. California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed AB19 into law, establishing the California College Promise. This promise will waive enrollment fees for the first academic year for first-time students who are enrolled in a community college in 12 units or more per semester. Currently the state offers fee waivers for students with demonstrable hardship through its BOGFW and Pell grant support. AB19 would serve as an incentive for other first time students to enroll in community colleges. A key question is how does this support students academically?

At $46 a unit, a student that is enrolled in a full 12 units currently pays $552 per semester. Yet paying for school tuition, particularly at a community college, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much it really cost to attend. On top of tuition, there is the cost of books, lab fees, parking/transportation, and additional student related fees (student health center and associated students for example). In addition to that, some students carry other expenses like child care, food, and rent (where in San Francisco the average rent for a one bedroom apartment is $3,670).

Covering the cost of tuition is a great first step that can alleviate some of the financial burden students face and can encourage students to enroll full time- in 12 units. Specially because attending college full time provides numerous benefits for students. However, not all students have the luxury to enroll in 12 units or more. Research supports that students who enroll full time are more likely to develop habits that lead to higher school engagement, persist throughout college, and graduate on time. Yet, enrolling in 12 units or more is the equivalent of studying 36 hours a week for an entire semester (it roughly translates to 3 hours of homework per unit of study enrolled). A big commitment for students that juggle a combination of family and job responsibilities, particularly students of color. Currently, over half (69%) of students enrolled work while attending college, with 33% working 35 or more hours per week.

Even with dealing with all these challenges, a large number of students enroll at community colleges every year and encounter an even bigger challenge- they don’t persist and fail to subsequently enroll in the following semester. This creates a revolving door dilemma and it keeps colleges focused on outreach strategies year round. The challenge lies in keeping students engaged and enrolled long enough to help them reach their goals; whatever goal that might be. Whether it is to transfer to a 4 yr university, obtain an associate degree, get a certificate, learn that one skill to increase their pay at work, or remain a life-long learner. After all, it is cheaper for colleges to focus on retention rather than on constant outreach support efforts.

The key question remains: how is financing the first year of community college will help students stay on track and reach their goals? Supporting students to enroll full time can serve as an incentive not only to remain engaged, particularly first time college students, but also for community colleges to support their enrollment management efforts; if coupled with other research based strategies. A comprehensive support can include financing college tuition, implementing research based engagement/retention strategies, and a focus on what happens inside the classroom (learning outcomes). Some colleges are trying laptop loan programs (which I helped to create), childcare support- particularly during the summer, a new take on embedded tutoring, and embedded student services as part of a retention strategy plan.

In the end, the amount of emphasis put forth in getting students to enroll should be equally matched in putting in place retention strategies, particularly for students of color, who experience disproportionate impact and make up over half of California’s community college students.

Financing college tuition is just one step in supporting students’ completion of higher education. Adding a focus on research supported retention strategies and learning outcomes can yield far better results all together in student retention and engagement through college. Ultimately building a comprehensive college completion promise, while providing quality higher education in California.

Educational research scientist with the goal of making the achievement gap a thing of the past.