The dirty little secret of free community college no one’s talking about

    Community College of Philadelphia and Rutgers University Camden are joining to help the community college students easily transfer to the Camden university to pursue their bachelor degrees. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Community College of Philadelphia and Rutgers University Camden are joining to help the community college students easily transfer to the Camden university to pursue their bachelor degrees. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    The movement for free community college, and the issue of affordability in higher education more generally, centers on access. With a placement requirement that would preclude otherwise eligible students, free community college in Philadelphia may prove out of reach for many.

    Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden came to Philadelphia to publicize the launch of a new $100 million grant competition to expand tuition-free community college programs across the country. Since the President’s 2015 State of the Union Address announcing the College Promise program, at least 27 new free community college programs have launched in states, communities, and individual community colleges — including here in Philadelphia.

    Announced in April 2015, the 50th Anniversary Scholars Program at the Community College of Philadelphia is open to all Philadelphia high school graduates who enroll full time in a degree program for the fall semester following graduation, file a FAFSA and qualify for a Pell grant, and satisfy college-level placement requirement.

    So, what’s the catch?

    The College Promise has been billed as “free community college for anyone willing to work for it” — but everyone knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Surprisingly, the seemingly innocuous-sounding “college-level placement requirement” is likely to derail many Philadelphia students’ plans to attending community college tuition-free. Students who don’t meet basic requirements in English and mathematics must enroll in remedial coursework, in which students must pay tuition for courses that don’t earn credit towards a degree or graduation — essentially paying to re-learn what they should have mastered in high school.

    A national problem

    Despite all-time high four-year high school graduation rates — 82 percent nationally and 64 percent in the School District of Philadelphia — only 37 percent of students nationwide are ready for college-level coursework in both math and reading, according to the most recent NAEP scores, which means that many students will have to enroll in remedial courses. Many students who take these courses will continue to struggle: one study shows only 28 percent of students who take even one remedial course will go on to complete a college credential within 8.5 years. Besides slowing students’ time to graduation, remediation has been shown to cost high school graduates and their families $1.5 billion per year across the country.

    The Philadelphia context

    In order to meet the college-level placement requirements and qualify for the 50th Anniversary Scholars program, Philadelphia students must take a placement test, or earn a minimum score on the SAT (510 in English and 470 in mathematics) or ACT (21 in English and 17 in mathematics). Across the School District of Philadelphia, the average SAT score is 398 in English and 405 in math, while the average ACT scores for English and math are 15.5 and 18, respectively.

    Only four high schools have average reading and math scores on either the ACT or SAT that meet this placement requirement — and three of them are magnets. Both Central and Masterman’s average reading and math SAT and ACT scores meet this threshold, while the Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts and Girard Academic Music Program, both specialized magnet schools, average ACT reading and math scores also meet this threshold.

    For those involved in education this may not be surprising – only 20 percent of Philadelphia eighth-graders scored at or above proficient in the mathematics, and only 16th percent were proficient in reading based on the 2015 NAEP assessment, a nationwide assessment widely considered the gold standard in measuring student achievement. Low percentages can actually obscure the frightening reality of this fact: based on the estimate of 8,000 eighth graders, that’s only 1,280 students proficient in reading (1,600 in math) across the entire district.

    What this means is that the vast majority of students in the School District of Philadelphia may not be considered college-ready, and therefore ineligible for the scholarship.

    A national perspective

    Though other Promise programs across the country aren’t requiring college level placement for eligibility, they too are grappling with the costly issue of under-prepared students and remediation. Tennessee’s Promise, one of the programs that inspired America’s College Promise, offers high school seniors with low ACT scores have the opportunity to catch up in math before they graduate, using in-person instruction and computer modules through the Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support program, so they do not have to take remedial courses in community college. Now in its second year, 91 percent of participating students passed their SAILS course, meaning they should be ready for college level math — saving Tennessee students a collective $64 million by helping them complete postsecondary degrees on time.

    The movement for free community college, and the issue of affordability in higher education more generally, centers on access. With a placement requirement that would preclude otherwise eligible students, free community college in Philadelphia may prove out of reach for many. Offering college access by removing financial barriers represents a broken promise for Philadelphia’s students, unless additional supports are available for students to catch up academically. Opportunities like SAILS help meet students where they are by providing interventions to help them catch up before they get to college. With the national spotlight on Philadelphia for our early work towards a College Promise program, it is necessary for us to double down on our efforts to support students through the transition from high school to postsecondary education, in order to make the opportunity of free community college truly available to more students.

    Melissa A. Reynolds is a project coordinator at Education Strategy Group, a consulting firm specializing in K-12, higher education, and workforce solutions. Previously, she was a policy analyst at the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity in Philadelphia, and an intern at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. 

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