Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Latino Education Experts Ponder Impact of Free Community College Proposal

Source: Flickr/ COD Newsroom (CC BY 2.0)

Trends show that students of color are relying more heavily on community colleges as an “access point to low-cost, postsecondary education,” according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress.

It looks like they may be in luck: President Obama unveiled America’s College Promise last week, a plan to make two years of community college free for hard-working students. The White House estimates 9 million students could benefit from the plan if all states participate, and it has the potential to make a big impact on Latino college education — not only in regard to enrollment, but also, hopefully, completion. 

According to recent figures from Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, the number of Latino 18 to 24 year olds enrolled in college full time has gone up 175 percent since 2000. However, there is still a significant lag in degree attainment when compared with other racial and ethnic groups. 

In 2012, 20 percent of Latino adults age 25 and older had an associate’s degree or higher, while the same was true of 36 percent of all adults. 

Finances play a big role in completion, according to several Latino experts I’ve interviewed for previous posts and the Center for American Progress report I quoted earlier. Deborah Santiago of Excelencia in Education has described the Latino student profile this way: low-income, first in the family to go to college, works more than 30 hours a week, and enrolls part-time at a community college or Hispanic-serving institution.

So if tuition costs were taken out of the equation, things could start to change. However, as experts point out in a recent NBC News article, the president’s proposal still leaves low-income families footing the bill for housing, textbooks and other costs beyond tuition. 

Marta Tienda, a professor of demographics and sociology at Princeton University, told NBC she agrees with the premise of Obama’s proposal, but she’s not sure much will really change if we’re not ultimately steering students toward four-year colleges.

“While some professions like dental hygienist or nurse practitioner call for a two-year associate degree, for many other fields and majors, two years of community college is only a ladder that doesn’t by itself guarantee continuation, explained Tienda,” the article states. 

According to the White House fact sheet released after Obama’s announcement, by 2020, an estimated 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree. 

“One year of college is better than none, but it’s not what we want for Latino students, who are the fastest-growing segment of the population that will be supporting an aging population,” Tienda said. 

In 1996, President Clinton promoted tax credits with the goal of making at least two years of college “the standard for all Americans,” but it didn’t last beyond his presidency, Santiago notes in the article, adding, ”I hope we don’t send mixed messages to our community and then in two years whoever comes in de-emphasizes the issue of access and affordability in higher education. It’s harder and harder for Latino students to see that.”