President Obama’s recently unveiled proposal would make two years of community college freely available to most students who graduate from high school, maintain a 2.5 or greater GPA, and are enrolled at least half time. Others have pointed out that students must also be from families earning $200,000 or less annually to be eligible for the free tuition. Universal access to community college is a popular idea in some circles, but is it really the most effective way to increase equality of opportunities?

How students attend college is changing. Half of students who begin at a four-year college attend at least one other school before graduating (or otherwise leaving school), and over a third take some time off after enrolling initially. Disadvantaged students are more likely to follow interrupted pathways to degree completion, so differences in patterns of college attendance could be influencing social class differences in graduation rates (and thus inequality in opportunities).
While community colleges improve college access and extend post-secondary educational opportunities to underserved groups, they aren’t closing the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged groups in terms of program completion. As a result, they don’t necessarily reduce racial and socioeconomic inequities. However, enrolling in a community college modestly increases the probability of completing a bachelor’s degree among disadvantaged students who would not have otherwise attended college (the majority of community college-goers).
More education yields economic benefits in earnings, occupation and employment. It also provides non-economic benefits in areas like marriage, fertility, social participation, and physical and mental health. The returns on a four-year college degree are greatest for marginal students—those whose decision to attend college could be swayed by free access to community college. Completing an associate’s degree or certain certificates that involve at least a year of coursework can also lead to much greater income when compared to just taking some courses.