Editor’s note: Gelsey Mehl is a senior program manager at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan proposes an extraordinary investment in college students. If passed by Congress — a big “if” right now — the plan would provide two years of free community college tuition, among other benefits. Free community college is an admirable but insufficient step to making higher education more affordable and more equitable. Lawmakers and educators need to ensure students will have seamless ways to transfer those free credits so they can earn bachelor’s degrees.
While free community college should get more students on campuses, it won’t automatically lead to bachelor’s degrees. We learned this lesson the last time community college enrollment surged. During and after the Great Recession, more students turned to these two-year colleges. Yet, a smaller share of community college students then transferred to four-year schools.
Of students who started at community colleges the year before the 2008 Great Recession, 33% transferred to four-year universities, according to research by my team at the Aspen Institute, working with the Community College Research Center and National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Our work examined first-time degree-seeking students who enrolled in the fall of 2007 and went on to transfer to a four-year university within six years. When the Clearinghouse repeated these analyses in later years, they found this rate bottomed out at 29% for students who started in the fall of 2011 in the wake of the recession.
Today, a bachelor’s degree is more crucial than ever for ensuring people can access higher-paying jobs that endure during economic slowdowns and other catastrophes. Students at community colleges have the most to gain. They’re more likely to come from the populations who are less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree: Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students, those who are the first in their families to go to college, those from low-income families, and those raising children.
We can predict that President Biden’s proposed $109 billion investment in free community colleges will lead more students to enroll because we’ve already seen several states and localities pioneer “college promise” programs that provide free tuition to high school graduates from their regions. Community colleges will play a critical role in helping workers retool and reenter the workforce. Just as important, they open doors to four-year campuses, especially for the student populations who traditionally have been shut out.
What if students flock to community colleges because of free tuition, only to later learn that just a few courses will transfer to four-year universities and count toward their chosen programs? The free college will disproportionately benefit those with the connections to navigate unwieldy transfer policies, as well as the money to fund additional semesters at a four-year university.
We need to pair a focus on free community college with effective and affordable transfer pathways. We could start by requiring colleges to build clear program maps that lay out which courses students should take at their community colleges while assuring those credits will fulfill requirements in their chosen majors at four-year universities.
Second, let’s introduce more guaranteed admissions and dual-admissions programs that simultaneously admit students to community colleges and four-year universities. A couple of well-regarded models are DirectConnect, which links Valencia College to the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and ADVANCE, which connects Northern Virginia Community College to George Mason University.
Another innovative approach is to get students started on bachelor’s degrees as early as ninth grade through dual enrollment. High school students take college courses, typically for free or at a discounted price.
Finally, increase financial aid for transfer students and be transparent about costs. More four-year institutions need to dedicate the financial assistance to transfer students and be upfront about what students will owe after moving. The University of Dayton’s four-year tuition plan is a model worth replicating for transfer students around the country, which guarantees incoming freshmen will pay a set price across all four years at the university.
Of course, this obligation must not rest on state colleges alone; private institutions also have a responsibility to expand transfer pathways. Clarke University in Iowa recently showed what’s possible when it introduced new ways with all community colleges in the state.
By embracing strategies that make transferring more accessible, cheaper, and more efficient, we can ensure that community college students fully benefit from free college courses with the realistic option of graduating with a bachelor’s degree. Even if the Biden plan fails to pass Congress, these investments in transfers will help close race-based gaps in earnings and wealth accumulation and stimulate social mobility for generations to come.