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Free Community College Works — And It’s Just A Start

When you make college free, more people enroll.  

We’ve been saying it for years. It seems so obvious, but new evidence keeps coming in. A recent article at Inside Higher Ed showcased community college systems that are turning their pandemic recession drop around by offering free programs. It’s working in Maine, in Michigan, in South Carolina, Florida, and California.

“The results of some of these programs, commonly known as promise programs, leave administrators feeling hopeful about the coming fall semester,” the article notes. “Although the enrollment numbers are preliminary, promise programs have led to a swell of applications at some community colleges at a time when these institutions are eager to recoup their losses and fill local worker shortages with new graduates.”

The message isn’t complicated. One administrator summed it up:  “Tuition is free. Now please enroll.” It works. 

This is because the value of a college degree is still significant: people who have college credentials tend to do much better economically. The answer to the question “do people want a college education?” is still yes. But for too many, college is not accessible and an education remains out of reach. 

Free Community College Is Only Part Of Accessibility

Calbright is committed to making college accessible to every Californian — and making it free is a significant part of that. But it’s only one part of the equation. For many students, especially non-traditional students, making college affordable only eliminates one of the barriers they face

Many people who would enroll in college can’t because their work schedules don’t make attending a regular class possible. Many people can’t enroll in college because they’re caring for family members and need more flexibility than college allows. Many people don’t live close enough to a college that will accept them. 

Then there’s another important factor: staying in college. Completing is just as important as enrolling, and many colleges have “hidden curriculums” and bureaucratic red tape that make staying in very difficult for non-traditional students. 

It’s important enough that In a recent article, Julia Michaels, executive director of the Center for Public University Transformation at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said that creating” better teaching practice and learning environments” and offering “holistic student support” are just as important as making college more affordable.

We’re Taking The Next Steps

Calbright’s model is designed to make college accessible to everyone. We are a free community college, but more than that:

  • There’s no red tape — we accept every adult Californian with a high school diploma or equivalent who applies
  • Our classes are all online, and we lend laptops and mobile hotspots to students who need them (also for free)
  • Our classes are all flexibly paced. Our students can start and stop when they want. Whether it’s in 10 minutes between errands or hours spent late at night, students learn on their own schedules, at times that work for them
  • Calbright uses Competency Based Education, which means our students are evaluated on what they know, not how long they’re spending in class. Students can test out of units they already know, and take extra time with subjects they’re struggling with
  • Calbright keeps its students connected. Every student at Calbright has a personal success coach, access to tutors, and can easily connect with their faculty for help when they need it. Calbright is online, but our students don’t do it alone.

We developed this new kind of college because accessibility matters. Because education helps students, and because an educated workforce is critical to our economy. Free online community college works, but it’s just the beginning of what it means to make college accessible.

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