Who Does Free Community College Actually Help?

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Who does free community college help?  It may not be who you're expecting.

I want to preface this by saying I’m not against free community college.  I think we need to invest more in the education of our populace, and that we don’t put enough emphasis on it as is.

However, as all this news has been coming out about plans for free community college, whether it’s Obama’s America’s College Promise or Oregon’s recent legislation, I can’t help wondering if the whole thing is a marketing ploy.  I’m not entirely sure who is being helped by making the cheapest college option free.  Because for the people who need the help most, it already is.

How Our Family Got Free Community College

My husband is currently a non-traditional student, and I graduated two years ago.  For both of us, community college was an integral part of our plan.  Even without scholarships, the education we got there was not only free, but we got paid to do it.  This was possible because of our income level and the Pell Grant, which is the Federal grant awarded to qualified students when they fill out the FAFSA.  When the Pell Grant was paid to our schools, any excess over tuition (and there was excess over tuition) was given back to us as a check for books and living expenses.  We applied for scholarships on top of this, which gave us even more money to fund life, not tuition, while we were in school.

Anyone under a certain income level can do this.

Can You Get Free Community College?

The way the FAFSA works is it takes into account all of your income and all of your dependents.  They run all this through a formula and come out with an Expected Family Contribution (EFC.) When your EFC is zero, you get the full amount of the Pell Grant according to the tuition of the school you’re going to.  Our EFC has always been zero (though that may or may not change for next tax year,) and we’ve always gotten the max Pell Grant, even exceeding our local community college’s tuition.  In Western, PA, post-secondary education isn’t cheap.  Community college is generally our cheapest option, but compared to other parts of the country our tuition rates are high.  (I’ve dabbled in school at other community colleges in my sojourns across the country and paid considerably less than he does here.)

So if your EFC is zero, community college already is free, unless they charge more than $5,775/school year.  That’s the max you can get from the Pell Grant for 2015-2016.

How to get an EFC of Zero

These first examples are not the only way to get an EFC of zero.  Rather, they’re automatic qualifiers.  If you fall into any of these categories, you’re automatically in.  The requirements to become an independent student can be found here.  Dependent students will have to use their parents’ income numbers.

Dependent Students

You meet one of these requirements:

  • Your parents or anyone in their household received SSI, SNAP, free or reduced-price school lunch, TANF, or WIC benefits in 2013 or 2014.  (If they aren’t familiar with those acronyms, they most likely didn’t get it.  These are welfare benefits, and it’s a very intensive process to obtain them.)
  • Were not required to file a tax return, or they were eligible to file a 1040A or 1040EZ.
  • Your parent is a dislocated worker.

AND this requirement:

  • Their AGI on their taxes was $24,000 or under.  (If they didn’t file, add up the numbers on all their W-2s and any other earnings that would have been taxable had they been required to file.)

Independent Students

If you don’t have dependents other than your spouse, you cannot qualify for an automatic zero.  That doesn’t mean you don’t qualify.  It just means they will use a formula, so it’s not as easy to eye up your income and know for sure where you will fall.  It’s more of a fill out the FAFSA and wait thing.

If you do have dependents, you automatically qualify for and EFC of 0 if you meet one of these requirements:

  • You or anyone in your household received SSI, SNAP, free or reduced-price school lunch, TANF, or WIC benefits in 2013 or 2014.
  • Were not required to file a tax return, or they were eligible to file a 1040A or 1040EZ.
  • You or your spouse is a dislocated worker.

AND this requirement:

  • Your AGI on your taxes was $24,000 or under.  (Again, if you didn’t file, add up the numbers on all their W-2s and any other earnings that would have been taxable had you been required to file.)

So those are the automatic requirements, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get the zero EFC if you don’t meet them.  If you don’t, and you want to run your numbers, you can check out the worksheets here.  If that’s too much work, you can just file your FAFSA and wait and see.  Their calculations may differ from your own, anyways, as there are a lot of factors that go into it.   You can also get a ballpark by using CollegeBoard’s calculator.

Who Does Free Community College Help?

For the vast majority of people who really can’t afford it, community college already is free.  For everyone else, tuition prices are so low it kind of seems like a moot point.  The one demographic I can see this really helping is students who do not yet qualify for independent status, but who have parents who are unwilling or unable to help.  The biggest culprit for inability to pay in this situation is those who make a middle middle-class income or higher, but are saddled with debt, which the EFC does not account for.  I guess it could help anyone who was carrying debt, even independent students, but if you’re at that income level anyways, there’s probably not a whole lot that a community college education is going to do to help you increase your income with the exception of a few select trades.

So if community college is already free to those who cannot afford it, we’re really only helping that one demographic.  I’m all about helping them.  Really and truly, because they’re the one subset of potential college students who there isn’t a whole lot of hope for.  They’re stuck between not getting any financial aid as it’s largely granted based on income levels, and not getting any help from their parents.  But a large portion of the talk I’ve seen about this isn’t aimed at them.  And most community college attendees aren’t fresh out of high school, anyways; the average age is 28.  The whole thing feels like political showmanship to me.

If we’re going to start investing in education, let’s help those kids stuck between a rock and a hard place out.  But let’s get serious about it.  Let’s help pay for four-year colleges where costs are truly insane.  For everyone.  Let’s stop tuition inflation.  Let’s not stop at community college and pretend we’re some sort of martyrs for doing it.



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25 thoughts on “Who Does Free Community College Actually Help?

  1. Ali @ Anything You Want

    Thanks for sharing this! I wasn’t aware that there was a program to help students go to community college for free. I completely agree that we need overall education reform to allow everyone to access four year universities. It is insane that students need to go into so much debt just to get a degree.

  2. Hannah

    I’m not a big fan of the political gamesmanship associated with the entire educational industry. Outside of the various factors you mentioned, two of my siblings got free Associate’s degrees by attending community college in high school. These days my old high school actually offers an associate’s degree path, a technical degree path (also associate’s but not in general studies), and a traditional path. These types of programs only require that the school get and maintain certain certifications, and I hope more high schools figure that out.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      You know, I’ve been tossing around this post idea for all the different ways to utilize community college, and that’s a huge one on my list. Some 4-year schools do something similar offering college credit for a nominal fee with AP courses working in tandem with them. Sometimes they don’t even have to be AP. But to have the associate’s before graduating high school is so huge.

  3. Tonya@ Budget and the Beach

    I had no idea some of the details of community college. You’re right in that I think there is that demographic that is stuck between a rock and hard place. We’re putting a lot of pressure on them to be saddled with huge amounts of student loan debt!

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Or wait and go to school non-traditionally after they’re grown and broke and qualify as independent students. That’s not experience talking or anything… :p

  4. Petrish @ Debt Free Martini

    I think this program is great and can help a lot of people change the direction of their lives. I worked at a food bank when I was younger and taught classes to the community and trust me there are people out there who can use a free education.

    1. Femme @ femmefrugality

      That’s kind of what I’m saying…. For them it’s already free through Pell Grants. Most of the people in my neighborhood are in the same boat and don’t believe me when I tell them, but so much community college education is already funded through these grants. Theirs could be too. Ours was.

      Not saying the program isn’t great, just saying awareness of what’s already out there isn’t high. So people see FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE and think it’s for lower income people, but really they’re (and formerly me) already taken care of. This program helps people who make more money, and when you make that level of money, the cost of community college is marginal unless you or your parents are saddled by debt. If it is you, having the level of income to make community college actually cost money due to lack of Pell Grants means there aren’t TOO many programs that will help you make more at a community college. At best, they’ll be few and far between.

      And education needs to be more fully funded period. This is a start, but I think there needs to be a lot more, and this start doesn’t address as many problems as it is posturing to. Those high school kids saddled by their parents debt to income are helped, and possibly military families with a parent stationed in a country like South Korea where BAH is huge to meet the market artificially inflating income. Those are good people to help, but it’s not enough.

  5. Engineer Cents (@engineercents)

    A few that I can think of:
    1. Out of state community college students, i.e. those who just moved to a new city and don’t yet qualify for in-state tuition rates
    2. High school students who take college classes don’t yet qualify for Pell grants
    3. Students who do not receive the support to navigate the financial aid process (maybe first-gen students?)
    4. Students whose parents refuse to fill out the FAFSA (this happened to a LOT of my classmates)
    5. Students whose parents do not file taxes (e.g. children of undocumented workers)
    6. Part-time students who have to extend their education for more than 6 years (max length for Pell grants)

    I remember my mother was making less than $30,000 when I was in late high school and my EFC according to FAFSA was still $3,000-$4,000. It was ridiculous. Similar numbers just happened with my brother recently when he applied to financial aid. Maybe it was because she had assets in taxable accounts or because she was self-employed, but there was no way my family could have afforded that. Or maybe we’ve been doing something wrong?

    In any case, I agree with you that net the government probably won’t be spending that much more on education with free community college but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it is good marketing and good policy. And, imagine how much time/money we could save paring down the financial aid infrastructure. Millions fewer finaid documents to process + millions fewer applications to submit = Lot less time, lot less money.

    1. Femme @ femmefrugality

      Touche on a lot of these! #2 is sometimes (definitely not always) funded through a school program. #3 is the same problem for a lot of lower income people, whether they’re grown or in a high school. They don’t know about how to navigate the program so they don’t. Not sure how the new program will help this, other than making the news and spreading awareness. In that case I’m not sure why there’s not an awareness campaign for the program already in place as they’ll be using Pell Grants regardless in all likelihood. #5 I think you’re right with undocumented, but you can apply for the Fafsa with pay stubs; you don’t need a 1040 necessarily. And #6 the time constraints aren’t clear on the Federal program, but as I understand it there are likely to be some, and there’s a question of how part time students will qualify.

      The rest and partials you’ve totally got me on! That’s really weird that you got that EFC. Some taxable assets are reportable, and your choice of school effects things, too. Was it community college you applied to or a four year school with higher tuition? Counterintuitive, but the institution does effect things. Because while for a couple years we made far, far less than that, we’ve also made more than that with an equal household size and qualified for zero. Pretty sure this isn’t proposing a streamlining of the FAFSA, but rather a supplemental program to it, which would require more paperwork. Could be wrong. It’s unclear to me where the legislation stands other than the proposal made earlier this month.

      Again, I’m not against this program, but think that a) there’s not enough awareness and talk about the programs already out there and b) that we need to invest more where it will matter more. I do hope it passes, but I also hope this conversation didn’t die with that passage.

      1. Engineer Cents (@engineercents)

        FAFSA calculation, as far as I understand, is independent of institution. The EFC my school calculated was $0 thankfully since I would not have been able to afford college otherwise.

        I mention #2 because I took college classes in high school and my school didn’t offer a program so I was paying a few hundred dollars (saved from p/t jobs) out of pocket.

        I doubt this would streamline the FAFSA itself hopefully will entail fewer students having to submit a FAFSA, at least if implemented “correctly”. Which, you know, federal government being what it is might be high hopes.

        1. femmefrugality Post author

          Meh your right on FAFSA EFCs. Wasn’t thinking there. It’s the additional aid packages that schools put together that can vary.

          I did the same thing. It wasn’t through a community college, but it was $90/class for the credit. Not sure that this new program would cover these (sometimes schools do at a local level, but you’re for sure right… not always) but I really would hope it would.

          And that’s what I’m thinking, too. Would makes more sense to simplify, but anything government run seems to be made more complicated than common sense would dictate.

  6. Alexandra @ Real Simple Finances

    This is such a tricky subject. I think education is one of the most important things that we need to focus on (let’s NOT get into the common core though…), and I think too many people are struggling under the massive costs to attend college.

    However, this is a really fun topic to discuss when I teach in the community college. Of course the first answer every student has is “YES! We need free tuition!” Great, great… but since this is an argumentative class, they need to do better. I start showing them America’s debt, with the ticking calculator that goes up before their eyes. I force them to think about who might pay for this, and what other programs might need to be cut. I don’t have all (any of?) the answers, but it’s very fun to play devil’s advocate and make them really think about something that seems like such a no-brainer.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Ooh, common core politics! Agreed to not touch here. 🙂

      That’s awesome that you have them do that. There are a few demographics that fall through the gap (Taylor did an awesome job of outlining more of them,) but largely this is a program for people that don’t qualify for Pell grants with the limit of a $200k income. I’m usually all about programs that better our society, and am still here, but that’s an interesting question: will those in a higher tax bracket be paying more in taxes than if they had just paid tuition long term, remembering that a vast majority of low income households are already covered? Will be interesting to see how it’s funded.

  7. Kayla @ Shoeaholicnomore

    Our community college used to offer free tuition to the students who graduated HS in the same county. But I think a lot of students took advantage of that program by not using it for it intended purpose. On the other hand, some students wouldn’t have been able to go to college at all if it weren’t for that program.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      That’s awesome! And you’ve got me totally curious; how were they using it if not for the intended purpose?

  8. Melissa

    I definitely agree with you about stopping rising tuition costs. In my home state, prices of public universities have risen to just crazy levels. The public universities in my home state cost almost as much as my private out-of-state school cost!

    That said, I’m still in favor of free community colleges. It won’t help most people, like you said, but it would have helped people I knew growing up. Most of my friends had parents who didn’t qualify for help, yet couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help their kids pay for community college. Many of my friends took out loans and worked a full-time job to pay for community college. I think it would have been less of a burden on them to at least not have to worry about paying for community college, since most also lived on their own and had to worry about transportation and living expenses while in school.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Honestly, it would have helped me growing up, too. I wouldn’t have had to wait so long to go to school, except that even as a teen I was able to take some community college courses through my own money. My education was splintered, though, partially due to funding and partially due to constant moves.

      That’s crazy about Arizona’s state school tuition. What the heck are your kids supposed to do? And let’s say they finish the two years in preparation for the four year degree… What then? There’s supposed to be some funding for students who go on to schools that largely serve minorities, but I don’t know if it will be sufficient for those it does help, and it definitely won’t help everyone.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Ha! Thank you, but I’d lose my mind I think. :p

      That’s awesome about NY’s schools. I’ve also heard amazing things about the SUNY system.

  9. SavvyJames

    It seems to me that in some ways we are putting the cart before the horse. Before the question of college, we should probably be paying more attention to – and actively engaged in – improving elementary education, particularly in low-income areas. If we don’t, our society as a whole will ultimately pay the price and the question of free college will be moot.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Excellent point! Especially with the high drop out rate at community colleges. The two are definitely intertwined, though I know there are some other contributing factors. A lot of community college students spend significant time in remedial classes just to catch up, in which case the course load takes longer than the two years allotted if they finish. I wonder how this will be handled?

      This is a complicated issue, too, as our school systems are decentralized. Alexandra almost touched on it with the mention of common core initiatives. I hopped on board the Fair Funding Campaign for PA for exactly this reason. So many schools or programs are not sufficiently funded to provide students with an opportunity for success.

  10. Mel

    I didn’t even know this was a thing, but it is fishy. I agree that when I think of affordable schooling, the first thing I think about is community college. It’s so easy to get a scholarship to go for free in NJ if you really want to go to college.


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