President Barack Obama’s proposal to make two years of community college free for all Americans has been embraced by many college-access advocates, but skeptics are challenging the scope and practicality of the plan.
The big questions are how to pay for the initiative, which is estimated will cost about $60 billion over the next 10 years, and whether the Republican-controlled Congress would even consider it.
As part of his State of the Union wish list, the president is proposing that federal and state government together cover two years of community college tuition for all students who make steady progress toward completion and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.
“It’s something that we can accomplish and it’s something that will train our workforce so we can compete with anybody in the world,” said Mr. Obama in a video before unveiling the plan in Tennessee on Jan. 9.
Even if it doesn’t pass, the strategy of releasing a big idea that’s short on details ahead of this week’s speech to Congress has generated buzz about the need for postsecondary education. It’s difficult to assess the proposal’s chances until more is known about the specifics of funding when the budget is released Feb. 2, but many are buoyed just by the issue getting attention.
“There are two ways to see success here. One would be the White House gets more or less a bill that they want passed. That’s probably difficult,” said Ben Miller, a senior policy analyst with the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. “The other would be raising the profile of programs and ideas like this and getting other states to do this on their own.”
Sharing the Cost
Called America’s College Promise, the president’s plan is inspired by somewhat similar programs in Tennessee and Chicago. It calls for the federal government to pay for 75 percent of community college tuition (about $3,800 a year for full-time students) and states that opt in would pay the remaining 25 percent. The administration estimates the program could assist 9 million community college students.
Unlike the Tennessee Promise model of a “last-dollar scholarship,” the president’s plan would give students money in addition to federal Pell Grant aid, which currently covers about $5,700 a year for the lowest-income students who qualify. Mr. Miller believes the most important aspect of the proposal is that it attempts to formalize the notion of a shared funding responsibility between the federal and state governments, because he believes the lack of one has been a driver of college affordability problems.
Underwriting tuition for all students could help bolster attendance at community colleges, where enrollment has shrunk recently following a surge during the economic recession, said David Baime, the senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington.
“When you look at how much our students have to work, if they had a significant drop in tuition…you would see more students able to persist and complete,” said Mr. Baime.
As for the likelihood of the idea becoming a reality, Mr. Baime initially said the proposal will face “tough sledding” in Congress. But because of the intense interest following the announcement of what is now being called one of president’s “signature proposals,” he said some version of the initiative could be adopted.
Reaction in both federal legislative chambers was swift and ran along party lines.
U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, said in a statement that the president shouldn’t be making new promises that the country can’t afford, calling the idea a “multi-billion dollar federal program that will compete with existing programs for limited taxpayer dollars.”
Although a Republican governor was behind Tennessee’s new program, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., does not support creating a new federal program to pay for community college. “The right way to expand Tennessee Promise nationally is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done,” he said in a statement.
Others, such as U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., offered support. “Expanding access to college and making it more affordable is a ticket to the middle class for millions of students across the country, and I look forward to working with President Obama and my colleagues to make this goal a reality,” she said in a statement.
Although helpful, covering tuition is no guarantee that completion rates will improve, said Thomas R. Bailey, the director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. Community college costs are relatively low now, but six-year graduation rates hover around 34 percent, according to the center’s research.
Money and Mentoring
Mr. Bailey said he welcomes the prospect of expanding awareness about the affordability of community college, but he also advocates for broader reforms, such as revamping remediation courses and expanding student support programs.
To tap into federal money for tuition, America’s College Promise would require states to make improvements in community colleges, focus on programs with useful skills, raise community college graduation rates, and ensure such credits can be transferred to four-year colleges.
The Tennessee Promise provides both money and mentoring in its model, which was approved by the state legislature last year and begins to fund students in the fall of 2015. So far, the state has recruited 7,500 volunteer mentors, including many from the business community, to work with high school seniors beginning in January and through their transition to college.
Nearly 58,000 seniors applied for the new community college scholarship program by the Nov. 1 deadline, representing 90 percent of the graduating class and exceeding expectations of about 30,000.
“We understand there will be attrition and it will serve as a Plan B for many students. We just want them to go somewhere,” said Krissy W. DeAlejandro, the executive director of tnAchieves, a partnering organization with Tennessee Promise coordinating the mentors. “When [students] talk about college, it really isn’t about if, but about where now.”
Community college enrollment through the first year of the program is expected to be 12,000 to 16,000 students. The cost is estimated at $9 million to $12 million, which will come entirely from a state lottery endowment, according to Mike Krause, the executive director of Tennessee Promise.
‘A Serendipitous Place’
Community college enrollment had dropped in Tennessee, as it has elsewhere in the nation, so institutions there have space.
“We are in a serendipitous place in that all of the community colleges had expanded for the recession and we caught them right at the window where they haven’t fully contracted,” said Mr. Krause.
Warren R. Nichols, the vice chancellor for community colleges with the Tennessee Board of Regents, said there is facility capacity, but the new students will require additional faculty, and adjuncts are being recruited to be on “stand by” once the final needs are known.
He said money to accommodate the influx was a “big concern” because the state funding cycle is based on completion rather than enrollment, so there is a lag in money. However, schools will be creative and accept every student, and the system is hoping large numbers will participate in the new program, added Mr. Nichols.
Free community college for all is not a panacea and fails to address the unmet financial needs of many low-income students, contends, The Institute for College Access and Success, or TICAS, a nonprofit that advocates for increased access to higher education. The College Board estimates, for instance, that the average total cost of community college tuition, plus room and board is about $11,000 this academic year.
“We are not giving low-income students everything they need, so the question remains, ‘Should we be giving to students who don’t need it?’ ” said Debbie F. Cochrane, the research director for TICAS in Oakland, Calif.
While she said a universal program is “safer politically” and does focus on stopping state divestment in public colleges, Ms. Cochrane is skeptical the new program will make it through the budget process.
“It’s a conversation starter,” she said. “Immediately, the primary importance of this is the conversation.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Skepticism, Hope Greet President’s Community College Plan