Preston Cooper writes for the Martin Center about proposals for taxpayers to cover all costs of community college.

House Democrats have released their draft plan to make free community college a reality across much of the country, at a price tag of over $100 billion. The obsession with a zero sticker price for community college is odd, given that community colleges are already one of the most affordable sectors of America’s higher-education system. Average tuition is less than $4,000 per year, and after existing financial aid is applied, the typical student pays no tuition at all.

The more pressing concern at community colleges is not the price of admission, but what that tuition payment is buying students.

Most students say the top reason for pursuing higher education is increasing their earnings power. Some programs at community colleges will help them realize that potential. Consider the A.S. in Registered Nursing degree at California’s College of the Sequoias. According to federal government data, graduates of this program will earn a median salary of $81,400—well above the U.S. median income and even most four-year college degrees.

Nationwide, more than 94 percent of community college associate’s degrees in registered nursing yield median salaries of $50,000 or more. Career-oriented fields in health care and manufacturing are usually good choices for students who want to see a financial return on their educational investment. But America’s community college sector is not a uniformly powerful engine of upward mobility.

In 2019, over 400,000 students graduated with an associate’s degree in liberal arts or general studies, making this the most popular field of study for community college graduates. But 87 percent of these programs yield median earnings of $30,000 or less. For context, young adults with only a high school degree earned a median salary of $35,000.

To be sure, many students with associate’s degrees in the liberal arts intend to transfer to a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree. But few students who attempt this route actually succeed.