Democrats and Republicans Are Hurting HBCUs with Free Community College Initiatives

Northam signs bills creating tuition-free community college program for  low, middle-income students

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has signed a bill this week creating free access to the state’s community and technical colleges for students from low and middle-income households. The “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” initiative, provides more than $36 million to cover tuition and fees, learning materials, and costs that are loosely associated with supporting college attendance, while specifically targeting students seeking degrees and credentials in pipeline programs for health care, information technology, computer science, manufacturing and skilled trades, public safety, and early childhood education.

Virginia’s plan is an extension of a pilot that started, in earnest, with Tennessee’s free community college program that launched in 2014 and served as a catalyst for the Obama Administration’s proposal for free higher education a year later. That proposal, along with the state’s performance-based funding models, has tanked enrollment at Tennessee State University over the last five years and has created similar outcomes for public and private HBCUs in states with similar community college support initiatives.

Research and policymaking are moving towards an inevitable federal initiative of making community college universally free across the United States. But if there is a real interest in helping students to earn training and jobs with serious economic and professional mobility, the better investment is made in HBCUs; even if just making the first two years free for students.

The eligibility rules should stay the same; first-generation college students and adult learners should have premium consideration for free college as they represent groups comprising the lion’s share of enrollment among community and historically Black colleges, and which have the greatest challenges in degree persistence.

But even the most successful community colleges have a hard time creating a pathway for students to succeed in the transition from community college to a four-year institution. At Northern Virginia Community College, (NOVA) where Northam signed the legislation into law, the number of minority students transferring into four-year institutions steadily increased while the number moving along with an actual degree from the school decreased between 2014 and 2018.

Consider those numbers in tandem with a stat on where these same students are landing after transferring. Hint: it ain’t Norfolk State University or Virginia State University.

NOVA students are largely leaving the school without a credential, and transferring into some of the state’s priciest and selective institutions. A 2020 report published by the Chronicle showed that George Mason University, the most popular destination for students transferring from NOVA, was the nation’s 50th best public institution at graduating 59% of transfer students within six years.

Community college access alone is not a magic bullet for student success or graduation. Data suggests that HBCUs, with higher overall completion rates and far greater socioeconomic outcomes than those of community colleges, are the closest thing higher education can find to magic-making for vulnerable students building a higher quality of life through education.

An informal count suggests that free community college is in eight HBCU states now including Virginia. Seven HBCU states allow community colleges to award four-year degrees. They reflect a spectrum of political, educational, and funding values, but all have had their share of trouble equitably supporting HBCU development.

It looks good on paper and sounds good in theory, but subsidizing community college access has and will always harm HBCU enrollment and capacity building. That works against the very students and communities this kind of legislation aims to protect.

It begs the question of why there is such bipartisan eagerness nationwide to undermine the very HBCUs that lawmakers at state and federal levels just months ago claimed as essential to American progress?