President Obama last week proposed a plan to make community college tuition free for two years "for everyone who is willing to work for it", in order to make community college more accessible. I don't have a huge amount to say about it, but there are things that need to be said; the primary problem of the plan is that it seems very much like a plan developed by someone who doesn't actually know how community colleges work.
(1) Money is not a major accessibility problem for community college. In reports it has been commonly said that the plan would affect 9 million students; this is about how many students make use of community college in the U.S., which immediately shows that it's not true. A significant percentage of students in community college already have their education free -- and for longer than two years, if they need it. One of the things that was rightly pointed out by some critics after the announcement is that it will affect almost nobody but the fairly well to do. The average cost of community college for low-income families across the entire nation is nearly zero. Pretty much all community colleges are set up to make community college affordable already, especially for low-income students, and the cost of it can be zero even before we get to the many students whose tuition is already paid by Pell Grant or through the Army or some other source. Community college students are already highly subsidized by taxpayers, and the students who pay most are the students who only do their college piecemeal. The White House says that "A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year," but the percentage of community college students who would actually save this much is very small, and almost entirely from upper income brackets.
This is not to say that it would have no effect (because of variability across the nation it will have some effect some places and none at all others), but affordability is not high on the list of accessibility problems for community colleges.
(2) What factors are major problems for community college accessibility? There are two that are particularly noteworthy:
(a) inadequate preparation
(b) insufficient time
The first can be put aside; it would require an entirely different approach. But it's worth thinking of the plan in terms of the second, because it puts the problem with the plan in sharp relief. As he's formulated it, "Students who attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their program will have their tuition eliminated." One of the major problems community college instructors have is that their students are often forced to take their classes on the fly. It's not uncommon to get students who, in addition to their courses, are working forty or more hours a week or (sometimes even and) raising children at home as single parents. I once taught a hybrid course (half normal, half online) in which over half the students were working full time. I had one student, a very good one, who worked sixty hours a week and had to sacrifice his lunch hour once a week to come to class, and another who could only take the course because her employer treated an Introduction to Philosophy course (which she was taking as a required elective for her program) as job-relevant training, and let her go during work hours. These are students who are undeniably "willing to work for it"; they are more willing to work for it than many students who have more time. But the plan passes them by, despite the fact that the demographic of students with little time or flexibility of schedule is one of the major focuses of community colleges in the first place. (I suppose they could be shoehorned in the requirement that eligible community colleges have "promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes", but that is both vague and very indirect.) There's no need to expect a plan about college to do everything all at once; but if the goal really is to make community college more accessible, and to guarantee that it's free for students who are "willing to work for it", this plan doesn't actually give us anything that is likely to do much for either of those things.
(3) Anyone who works with community colleges much is going to see immediately a potential problem with the plan: what is meant by "two years"? There are lots of different ways you can measure time at a college: from first enrollment, from first signing on to a plan, within a single institution or across a college career, consecutively or not. These questions become quite significant at the community college level, at which students come and go and come and go. And one of the things you learn quickly when dealing with legal policies regarding colleges is that politicians simply never have any clue about this issue. In Texas, for instance, we got a state law in which students were only allowed six withdrawals from courses. Nobody knew how to interpret it. Did that mean across their entire college career? Probably not, but the law didn't say. Did it mean for a particular college? Probably, but the law didn't say. Did it mean for a consecutive stretch of taking classes (e.g., suppose someone uses up their withdrawals and then comes back two years later)? The law didn't say. If we're talking about two years in terms of calendar years, this is ridiculously short for the typical community college education. If we measure it in terms of position in a program (which is what the statement actually sounds like), we run into questions about things like advanced placement credits or remedial programs. Can a student take one year at one community college and another at another -- since community colleges often lose students due to job moves? Do they have to be consecutive years? What about the common scenario of students who are at community colleges because they are in situations where how students can use their time can change suddenly -- pregnancy, taking care of a sick family member, frailty, loss of house, sudden inability to pay bills due to someone else in the family losing a crucial job? (I have had students run into serious problems from every single one of these; they are not hypothetical.) How does this get factored into the equation? And so on, and so forth. Educators have to get used to badly written laws, since most education-focused laws are badly written; but these things still need to be pointed out.
So it's not really a great plan for what it is supposed to do. On the other side, I suppose, it's very far from being the worst higher education plan that I've ever heard a politician float. It probably won't get through Congress -- although that doesn't mean we won't be served up instead some mish-mash of political compromises that's worse. And it's possible that it would do reasonably well, although for the reasons above it's not going to have anything like the impact its supporters are claiming. And the plan does have other minor reforms that I haven't looked at closely -- changes in student loans and grants for community colleges and the like.