Student Debt.
Among current Latinx students, 68% said they were concerned about paying their non-education related bills. Rent, food, health care and others add to the debt besides the tuition. Photo credit: Tommy/GettyImages.

What is community college's role in the student debt crisis

Considering that 67% of current college students said they were concerned about paying their tuition bill, can free public higher education be a solution?


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Community colleges are a special and important type of higher education institution. They not only offer a variety of different (two-year associate) degrees and certificate programs, but they are also a bridge for people who want to later transfer to other four-year institutions.  

In 2015, these institutions became the center of a discussion involving free public higher education when President Obama proposed the “American College Promise” program, aiming to make two years of community college at no cost for students.  

As stated by TIME in 2015, this proposal was more than just a partial solution to the student debt crisis, it also joined the community of thinkers who perceive community colleges as the best alternative to solve the issues in higher education cost. 

Easing the financial burden on the students, making community colleges free would represent a hope for the future generations in higher education. A poll done last year by New America showed that 65% of current college students said higher education is no longer worth the cost — and for Latinx students, it was even higher, 71%.

For Sara Goldrick-Rab — professor, sociologist and author — the next generation of college students is less likely to go, as they are genuinely scared of debt. It would be the first time this happens, and we would start to go backwards.

“There are people that say we’ve done something wrong to scare them, but I think we are being honest,” she added. “I don't think we should be tricking people by telling them that college is going to be free if they file for financial aid — and all they get are loans.” 

Goldrick-Rab makes sure to highlight that community colleges aren’t a couple of hundred dollars a year anymore. For the 2021-22 school year, public community colleges charge approximately $5,155 per year for in-state students and $8,835 for out-of-state students.

In 2022, there were 935 public community colleges in the United States. In Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Education, there are currently 15 community colleges located throughout the commonwealth — which receive local support as they are responsible for the educational needs of their sponsoring areas.

Currently, the tuition collected from community college students adds up to only about 20% of what the institutions spend on their educational operations. Almost 80% of community college revenues come from state and local funds, stated The Hechinger Report. 

Precisely because of this reason, Sara Goldrick-Rab says that the most recent election went well for the Biden Administration, and that they are committed to making community colleges free.  

“Most people probably don’t realize it, but in this last election, community colleges all over the country were on the ballots as they get a lot of their money locally,” she added.  

For Goldrick-Rab, the people who are the loudest about the student debt aren’t necessarily the ones who are in the worst situation from it. People who got their bachelor’s degrees are more likely to pay off their debt. However, the people who are in most debt right now, are those who went to community or for-profit colleges and didn’t get their degrees. 

“They are in debt and can’t pay it but they also have very little political voice,” Goldbrick said. 

She explains that we’ve been here before. At the end of the 19th century we started having conversations about making high schools free and it took 80 years for it to actually happen. The decision ended up changing the whole country, and innovation came from doing it. Rather than an individual investment, it was an investment in an entire nation, Goldrick-Rab said. 

“If this country wants to actually address the debt and prevent it from occurring, the number one thing to do is act like college is a voting issue and show up in two years,” she added. 


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