REPORT: The False Promise of Free College

By: Christopher J. McCaghren, Ed.D., DFI Senior Fellow
Jim Blew, DFI Co-Founder

Key Takeaways

The concept of a federal “free community college” program has not died, as Progressives continue to lobby and plan for it.

Federally funded “free community college” proposals are built on several falsehoods. Such proposals will not lead to better student outcomes or a more productive workforce. The cost to taxpayers would be significant while the benefits would go to a few special interests. In particular, President Biden’s “free community college” plan:

Imposes heavy financial obligations on states while interfering with state-based programs and limiting the ability of community colleges to address local needs.

Ignores the low graduation rates at community colleges and the lack of preparedness of high school graduates.

Overlooks existing state and federal programs that already help needy students obtain a free postsecondary education. Enhancements to these existing programs would benefit students and taxpayers far more than the Biden “free” proposal.

Executive Summary

For more than a century, community colleges have played a vital role in America’s higher education system. About one-third of America’s post-secondary students rely on community colleges for credit-bearing classes. Millions of others rely on them for non-credit programs that lead to better jobs and lives.

With its “Free Community College for All” proposal, the Biden Administration proposed a new federal entitlement: two more years of “free” public education. The plan sought two fundamental changes to the relationship between the federal government and state-supported community colleges. First, the proposal would dramatically increase the flow of federal funding to community colleges, increasing their total revenue by nearly 40 percent each year and undoubtedly bringing new requirements and regulations for participants.

Second, the feds would massively invest directly in community colleges, in contrast to the historical approach where federal aid goes to students, who can then choose to direct that aid to a community college or a variety of other options. This aspect of the Biden “free college” proposal would create perverse incentives. It would, for example, substantially shift the focus of community colleges away from attracting and keeping students—and toward attracting and keeping federal funds. Over time, this shift in funding would create a strong probability that community colleges will become less student- and community-centric.

When the “free” proposal re-emerges, Congress should think clearly about whether to use federal funds to, as President Biden says, “add two more years to public education.” Here are a few more points to consider:

  • The “free” proposal’s focus on one type of institution—two-year public colleges—might be warranted if those schools produced better than average student outcomes. Unfortunately, community colleges have embarrassingly low completion, or graduation, rates. According to the latest available data, only 17 percent of first-time, full-time associate-degree students graduate in two years. After six years, just 35 percent of these students graduate.
  • The “free” proposal all but ignores the connection between successful degree completion and life outcomes. Attending community college is far less impactful than completing community college.
  • Its advocates seem to rationalize this “free” taxpayer investment with the questionable notion that all children should be induced to attend public school until they are at least 21 years old. The political faction in America that is committed to everyone having a “good union job” finds this plan attractive, because it would create a spike in the number of public-sector union jobs.
  • The “free” proposal is built on several faulty assumptions:
    • Falsehood #1: A college degree is essential for today’s labor market.
      College is not a great fit for everyone. Sometimes, college is just an expensive detour.
    • Falsehood #2: All high school graduates are prepared to succeed in college.
      Unfortunately, most high-school graduates are not college-ready.
    • Falsehood #3: With massive federal funding, America’s community colleges will be able to improve their poor graduation rates while incorporating an influx of new students.     
      Community colleges have not improved their completion rates in spite of substantial investments, and they have limited capacity to expand current enrollment.
    • Falsehood #4: A federal “free” plan is needed to make postsecondary education financially attainable for today’s students.
      In fact, the good news is that students can already take advantage of a robust set of opportunities to cover community college tuition and fees, including state-sponsored student aid plans and federal Pell Grants.
    • Falsehood #5: A massive federal investment in community colleges will cause no harm to other types of higher education institutions.
      For colleges and universities that rely on student enrollments to survive, Biden’s “free” proposal would likely lead to financial distress and, in some cases, closure.

These falsehoods have led to a policy that is ill-conceived and not in the best interest of the American public or American students. Congress should resist the temptation to fund and shape community colleges and instead reform existing programs so they are more effective and enable states to improve postsecondary education.

To learn more about the authors, Chris McCaghren and Jim Blew, visit