What Is the Economic Payoff to Free Community College?

Northampton County Community College in Pennsylvania

People who graduate from college earn significantly more and have lower unemployment rates than do people who have only a high school degree. (We discuss this issue in Chapter 16, Section 16.3.) As the following table shows, in 2020, people with a bachelor’s degree had average weekly earnings of $1,305 and had an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent, while people who had only a high school degree had weekly earnings of $781 and an unemployment rate of 9.0 percent. People with an associate’s degree from a two-year community college were in between the other two groups.

Educational attainmentMedian usual weekly earnings ($)Unemployment rate (%)
Doctoral degree1,8852.5
Professional degree1,8933.1
Master’s degree1,5454.1
Bachelor’s degree1,3055.5
Associate’s degree9387.1
Some college, no degree8778.3
High school diploma7819
Less than a high school diploma61911.7

Not surprisingly, attempts to reduce income inequality have often included plans to increase the number of low-income people who attend college. In 2021, President Joe Biden proposed a plan that would cover the tuition of most first-time students attending community college in states that agreed to participate in the plan. The plan was estimated to cost $109 billion over 10 years and would potentially cover 5.5 million students. As of late 2021, it appeared unlikely that Congress would enact the plan but similar plans have been proposed in the past making the economic payoff to free community college an important policy issue.

There are many federal, state, and local programs that already cover some or all of the tuition and fees for some community college students. The state and local programs are often called “promise programs.” The name refers to what is usually considered the first such program, which began in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2005. There are now more than 200 promise programs in 41 states. The programs differ in the percentage of a student’s tuition and fees that are covered and on which students are eligible. The plan proposed by President Biden would have differed from existing programs in being more comprehensive—covering community college tuition for all high school graduates who had not previously attended college.

We can’t offer here a full assessment of the economic effects that might result from a  nationwide free community college, but we can briefly summarize some of the very large number of economic studies of community colleges. Hieu Nguyen of Illinois Wesleyan University has studied the effects of the Tennessee Promise program, which beginning in fall 2015, has covered that part of the tuition not covered by federal or other state programs for any Tennessee high school graduate who enrolls in a public two-year college in the state. Nguyen’s analysis finds that the program had a very large effect, increasing “full-time first-time undergraduate enrollment at the state’s community colleges by at least 40%.” Some policymakers and economists are concerned that promise programs may divert some students into attending community college who would otherwise have enrolled in a four-year college. As the table shows, on average, people who graduate from a four-year college have higher incomes and lower unemployment rates than people who graduate from a two-year college. Nguyen analysis indicates that this problem was not significant in Tennessee. He finds that the Tennessee Promise program resulted in only a 2 percent decline in enrollment in Tennessee’s public four-year colleges. 

Oded Gurantz of the University of Missouri studied the Oregon Promise program, which like the Tennessee Promise program, covers the part of tuition at Oregon two-year colleges not covered by federal or other state programs with the difference that it awards $1,000 per year to students whose tuition is completely covered from other sources. The program began in 2016. Guarantz finds that although the program did increase the enrollment in two-year colleges by four to five percent, initially nearly all of the increase was the result of students shifting away from four-year colleges. He finds that in later years the program was effective in increasing enrollment in both two-year and four-year colleges. 

Elizabeth Bell of Miami University finds that a narrowly focused Oklahoma program that covers tuition and fees at a single two-year college—Tulsa Community College—succeeds in substantially increasing the number of students who transfer to a four-year college and, to a lesser extent, increasing the fraction of students who receive degrees from four-year colleges.

A number of researchers have studied the returns to individuals from attending community college. As with the returns from four-year colleges, choice of major can be very important. Michael Grosz of the Federal Trade Commission found that, controlling for the individual characteristics of students, receiving a degree in nursing from a California community college “increases earnings by 44 percent and the probability of working in the health care industry by 19 percentage points.”  

Jack Mountjoy of the University of Chicago has compiled a large data set for the state of Texas that links enrollment in all public and private universities in the state to students’ earnings later in life. Mountjoy uses the data to analyze the effects of community college on upward mobility. The upward mobility of students who attend a community college is increased if the students would otherwise not have attended college but hindered if they attend a community college rather a four-year college they were qualified to attend. Mountjoy notes that survey evidence indicates that 81 percent of students enrolling in two-year colleges intend to ultimately receive a degree from a four-year college, buy only 33 percent transfer to a four-year college within six years and only 14 percent ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree.

Because so few students who enroll in a two-year college ultimately receive a degree from a four-college, promise programs run the risk of actually reducing the number of students who receive bachelor’s degrees by diverting some students from four-year colleges to two-year colleges. Mountjoy’s analysis of the Texas data indicates that “broad expansions of 2-year college access are likely to boost the upward mobility of students ‘democratized’ into higher education from non-attendance, but more targeted policies that avoid significant 4-year diversion may generate larger net benefits.” He notes that for low-income students, “2-year college enrollment may involve other labor market benefits … beyond modest increases in formal educational attainment, such as better access to employer networks, short course sequences teaching readily-employable skills, and improved job matching.”

Mountjoy’s results reinforce a point made by some other economists and policymakers: Programs that provide free community college for all students may be a less effective way for governments to spend scarce funds than are programs that focus on boosting the ability of low-income students to attend and complete both two-year and four-year colleges. Many low-income students face barriers beyond difficulty affording tuition, including the lost earnings from time spent in class and studying rather than working, child care expenses, and paying for textbooks and other learning materials. In addition, providing free tuition at community colleges to all students may end up subsidizing college attendance for some middle and high-income students who would have attended college without the subsidy and may provide an incentive for some students to enroll in two-year colleges who would have been better off enrolling in four-year colleges.

Sources:  Julie Bykowicz and Douglas Belkin, “Why Biden’s Plan for Free Community College Likely Will Be Cut From Budget Package,” wsj.com, October 21, 2021; Michel Grosz, “The Returns to a Large Community College Program: Evidence from Admissions Lotteries,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy; Vol. 12, No. 1, February 2020; 226-253; Hieu Nguyen, “Free College? Assessing Enrollment Responses to the Tennessee Promise Program,” Labour Economics, Vol. 66, October 2020; Oded Guarantz, “What Does Free Community College Buy? Early Impacts from the Oregon Promise,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 39, No. 1 October 2020, pp. 11-35; Elizabeth Bell, “Does Free Community College Improve Student Outcomes? Evidence From a Regression Discontinuity Design,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 43, No. 2, June 2021, pp. 329-350; Michael Grosz, “The Returns to a Large Community College Program: Evidence from Admissions Lotteries,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, Volume 12, No. 1, February 2020; pp. 225-253; Jack Mountjoy, “Community Colleges and Upward Mobility,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 29254, September 2021; Allison Pohle, “What Does Biden’s Plan for Families Mean for Community College, Pre-K?” wsj.com, April 28, 2021; Meredith Billings, “Understanding the Design of College Promise Programs, and Where to Go from Here,” brookings.edu, September 18, 2018; and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Projections: Education Pays,” Table 5.1, September 8, 2021.