Free Community College Sounds Hot. But How Do HBCUs Feel About That?

Charles D. Ellison
President Barack Obama speaks about new proposals for higher education accessibility at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., Jan. 9, 2015. 

Philosophically, President Obama would give us all four free years of a college education if he could.

Politically, however, he can only come up with two. And while it’s not the whole-nine-yard four, two free years of community college is not a half-bad proposition.


Looking at a cost of more than $60 billion over 10 years—which is just 1.5 percent of a $4 trillion federal budget if done in one—President Obama stirs it up with his ambitious free community college plan.

“I want to bring it down to zero. I want to make it free,” he told an excited crowd recently at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., the state he modeled the proposal after. 


And why not? The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that nearly half of all undergraduates attend nearly 1,200 community colleges nationwide.

“The days in which you could just graduate from high school and get a high-wage job that you progress into the middle class—pretty hard to do that today,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told CNN. “Many community colleges today are becoming regional economic engines. They’re driving economic activity, creating jobs in their communities. We have to support that.”


But how do the nation’s historically black colleges and universities feel about that?

Many HBCU leaders express optimism.

“I applaud the president’s efforts to assist students with their education, particularly at no cost, given the economy and increasing cost of higher education,” Cheyney University’s leader Frank Pogue told The Take.


But the question continues to cut through the conversation, since HBCUs (pdf) educate 11 percent of the nation’s black student population while making up only 3 percent of colleges. That’s significant considering the extinction-level threat faced by institutions that were once all African Americans had in terms of a college degree and middle-class entry. Years later, they’re struggling with lowered enrollment, sapped budgets and a student body almost entirely reliant on financial aid. Hence, the “free community college” banner triggers concerns from some who wonder whether support for the two-year institutions serving 45 percent of all minority undergraduates is at the expense of four-year HBCUs.

HBCU expert and University of Pennsylvania professor Marybeth Gasman recently observed at Huffington Post Live that she didn’t believe free community college “is an attack on HBCUs” as feared. But she cautioned against the feds’ use of “‘first-time, full-time student’ to define graduation rates [with] a program like this because all these institutions where those students transfer in are not going to get credit for [their] success.”


That prompted University of Southern California law professor Jody David Armour to opine to The Take via Twitter that “yes, it could hurt HBCUs if not implemented properly. Gasman’s point [in the article] about a fight over ‘metrics of success’ raises a red flag.” Still, Armour suggested that a partnership between HBCUs and community colleges could be rather fruitful. 

“They should start working on articulation agreements to get those students through the last two years,” lawyer and Georgetown University professor Joe Briggs told The Take. “Those connected to state systems receive more funding for upper-class students than [in the] first two years.”


Will it hurt or help the modern HBCU? The Take managed to elicit reactions from HBCU presidents, a member of Congress and the head of a large urban school district.

Mickey L. Burnim, Bowie State University (@bowiestate): About a quarter of our students are from community colleges. This has the potential to be a really positive boon to HBCUs. The real impediment to black students, as we already know, is the cost. So this proposal—if it’s enacted—could provide the critical entry point. But the big question is transitioning students from the community colleges to our four-year colleges.


The problem is that, historically, many people who earn community college degrees don’t go on through college. So HBCUs could be pioneers in changing that as a major gateway for opportunities in higher education. That could boost our enrollment in the long run if we do this right. The Obama administration is well-aware of the need for more resources, to expand Pell Grants and other sources of financial aid—that’s been expressed to them. Cost is the major issue. But if we focus on strengthening partnerships with community colleges, we can make this work.

Mortimer Neufville, Coppin State University (@CoppinStateUniv): “The president’s efforts to provide access should be applauded. Many minority students have to stay close to home, have dependents, and are employed full-time or in a situation where they are sharing work with study. However, we have to examine the ramifications of the proposal. I really believe it will significantly impact the HBCUs in terms of enrollment, especially those that are struggling. States where they have robust community colleges will benefit greatly and could divert a good segment of the student population away from us.


It could allow some of us, however, to develop more robust transfer articulation programs and partnerships with community colleges. At Coppin State, for example, we have been saddled with low graduation rates, but what’s not counted are the large number of transfer students we accept, such as the working students who spend seven to eight years graduating because they are full-time employees. It’s a double-edged sword because we complain about the loss of first-time, full-time students—but then again, we could enhance their performance if we had strong transfer articulation agreements.”

Micah Ali, president of the Compton Unified School District (@mrmicahali): The way the proposal is currently constructed, transfer students will exhaust most of their Pell Grant money before they’re admitted into a four-year college. Only four HBCUs graduate more than 50 percent of their students in six years. America’s College Promise initiative could provide a more prepared student body for HBCUs, which could lead to more black students graduating. However, only 15 percent of students who start at a two-year public college receive a bachelor’s degree within six years. For more-promising results, higher-caliber students would have to defer a four-year college to attend community college, or community colleges would have to improve their academic support and rigor dramatically.


Demcratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas’ 30th Congressional District (@RepEBJ): Most HBCUs have a problem with cost, and we also have parents who are also struggling through community college. I think this proposal is a great idea, especially if we see a partnership between the two. But it will need state cooperation to get funded, and I really hope there won’t be resistance on that level, especially from states in the South, like my state. We’ve already seen that with the Medicaid expansion. And that resistance will be couched in terms of money. The focus won’t be on it as a great educational opportunity; the focus will be “anti-Obama.” I’m really hoping states will come around and see this benefits all people and … in terms of the immigration-reform fight, could eliminate the need for H-1B visas.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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