By Josh Keniston, Research and Product Director
Since the Obama administration announced its proposal for free community college, initial reactions have dubbed the plan everything from “pie in the sky” to “transformational.” Tonight’s State of the Union address will likely present more figures about the relatively sparse proposal, including one often cited figure: 9 million eligible students. This figure represents 40% of all students enrolled in a two- or four-year program in the fall of 2014, which the Obama administration projects would benefit from this program.
The president will use this key talking point to demonstrate the magnitude of what he’s proposing. For boards and presidents at four-year colleges and universities, however, it may also be the point that raises the most questions about what this proposal could mean for enrollment at their institutions. For these higher education leaders, the questions will be, “Where would these 9 million students come from?” and “What impact would this program have on four-year institutions?”
To start, 7.4 million students will enroll in a two-year institution in 2015. If we account for students who will likely be ineligible for the proposed plan, like those at for-profit institutions and those enrolled in specialized programs not offered at community colleges, we estimate that about 7 million eligible students would already be attending community college this year. This suggests that the proposed plan will add 2 million students to the community college system. There are three groups that these 2 million additional community college students could come from:
- Traditional students: Students between the ages of 18 and 24 who would have attended a four-year school full-time
- Adult and part-time learners: Adult and part-time students who would have attended a bachelor’s program, in many cases online
- New students: Those who would not otherwise be enrolled in higher education
Impact on Traditional Bachelor Programs
Our data clearly shows that affordability is not the primary enrollment driver among this population, as it ranks fourth behind career preparation, core academics, and academic environment. Traditional students care most about the value for the cost, rather than cost alone. Unless community colleges can quickly demonstrate the same career outcomes and academic rigor as four-year colleges, the vast majority of traditional students are unlikely to choose this pathway, even if it is free.
There are, however, a few cost-sensitive segments of the traditional student population. According to our Prospective Student Survey, which was completed by about 20,000 prospective students, 11% of students would choose to start at a two-year program and transfer to a four-year program. These students, for whom affordability plays a greater role in decision making, tend to be first generation and non-white.
If we apply this figure to the traditional student market, we estimate that the number of prospective students who would choose free community college for the first two years is about 250,000, or roughly 5% of prospective traditional students.
Impact on Adult and Part-time Bachelor Programs
If 250,000 of the projected 2 million new community college students would come from the traditional student market, there are still 1.75 million students to be accounted for. Our data has long indicated that adult and part-time students are far more sensitive to price. Our 2013 survey of prospective adult learners found that over half of respondents with “some college courses, but no degree” (53%) cited lower tuition and fees as the most important factor driving their interest in higher education.
Applying this figure to our analysis of the size of the adult and part-time market, it is plausible that as many as 750,000 adult and part-time students would jump to the community college system if this proposal were to pass.
To summarize, we estimate that the Obama administration’s figures include 1 million students who would have otherwise enrolled in a bachelor’s program enrolling in community college. 250,000 of these “lost” students would be traditional students, and 750,000 of these students would be adult and part-time learners. If these projections are correct, the Obama administration’s plan for free community college would bring 1 million net new students to the higher education system.
For concerned boards and presidents, the impact of this proposal on their institutions’ numbers is not as dismal as it may first appear. Especially for traditional programs, losing 250,000 students for their first two years of college is far less staggering than losing 9 million students. Further tempering the impact on four-year institutions, the 1 million net new students would also be eligible to transfer to four-year institutions, and many likely would.
The bad news is that this plan is bound to impact certain institutions more than others and would further weaken institutions that are already struggling to maintain their enrollment numbers. Should this plan be enacted, tuition-dependent colleges with high discount rates and unclear value propositions would struggle even more to recruit students from price-sensitive populations. On the other hand, colleges with strong value propositions and high endowments per student would probably not feel the shift at all.