By Hajar Ahmed and Mary Nguyen Barry

In tonight’s State of the Union address, President Obama will argue for his proposal to make community college tuition-free for all students. (Disclosure: Before Obama’s proposal was unveiled, Education Reform Now noted our general support for the principles and rhetoric underlying the plan — increased financial support for college access and affordability along with an accompanying expectation of heightened personal responsibility from aid recipients.)

The strongest argument critics of the Obama free community college tuition proposal have made so far is that it’s not targeted to needy students and instead constitutes a boon for those from middle-income and wealthy families. But our review of the data suggests otherwise. Federal demographic data indicate that community colleges cater far more to underrepresented minorities, first-generation, and low-income students than traditional public four-year and private, non-profit four-year colleges.



Below is a more detailed breakdown of the income distribution of certificate- or degree-seeking undergraduate community college students. Low-income students make up almost two-thirds of all students that attend community colleges while those from families with incomes above $117,500 (the top 20% of families nationally) account for barely six percent of all community college students.



But here’s the real eye-opener. Critics of the Obama plan contend that low-income community college students already get Pell Grants, which at the current maximum level of $5,730, is more than enough to cover community college tuition. Set aside the common reply that the Obama plan would open up Pell Grant aid to community college students for use on room, board, and other expenses.

It turns out that according to the same federal data, while 66 percent of students enrolled in a certificate or degree program at American community colleges have family incomes low enough typically to qualify for a Pell Grant (below $50,000 a year), only 39 percent of current community college students receive Pell Grants. In other words, 27 percent of current community college students who are from low-income families are not receiving Pell Grants to help pay for tuition, fees, room, board or any other college expenses. This Pell Grant enrollment gap at community colleges is more than twice as large as the gap at traditional public four-year institutions and private, non-profit four-year schools. David Baime, Senior Vice President for Government Relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, calls the gap “a little tragedy.”



We surmise the community college Pell Grant gap is due in part to a combination of low awareness about federal financial aid opportunities among community college students and a daunting federal financial aid application process. Many students may not realize that the Pell Grant is available to help pay for all college expenses – including tuition, textbooks, and non-campus room and board. They may think Pell aid is available only for tuition at high tuition schools. Nearly half of community college students are enrolled part-time or less-than-half-time. Many of them may not realize that the Pell Grant is still available on a pro-rated basis, and therefore never file a federal financial aid application.

The bottom line: With over two-thirds of current students at community colleges being low-income, we can expect they’ll be the largest group of students to benefit from the Obama proposed free tuition policy. And for almost one-third of those low-income students, the Obama free community college tuition plan is likely to constitute the only federal financial aid they’ll claim.

If students from high-income families were likely to be drawn to community colleges by low-tuition as compared to a four-year school alternative, they’d already be flocking to community colleges. But they’re not. The Obama community college plan would deliver for students from families that need the help the most. Assertions otherwise are bunk.