Reactions Swirl Ahead of SOTU Pitch for Tuition-Free Community College

President Obama will outline a plan during next week’s State of the Union address to make the first two years of community college tuition-free.

The president’s proposal—if adopted by the Republican Congress—could smooth America’s notorious educational inequity while acknowledging that some college education is as important economically today as high school education was nearly a century ago when that it became “universal.”

“Once upon a time, a century ago, high school wasn’t universal for our country. I think this is putting a marker down and saying, in today’s society, in order to have a chance to get into the middle class, in order to fuel economic growth for our country, we need more people with a college credential,” said Josh Wyner of the Aspen Institute appearing on PBS after the Obama announcement.

“It will help boost and stabilize an important civil and education tool consistently threatened by state-level austerity. And it’s good for the economy too, as there’s no story about the twenty-first-century economy that doesn’t have an increased need for education playing a major role,” wrote Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal.

Still, bold proposals from this president tend to prompt knife-sharpening from political opponents (read the Affordable Health Care Act).

On the same PBS program, Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) worried about encouraging access without success: “If you look across the country, the average net price of tuition after subtracting out grants and scholarships is essentially zero for most students, meaning that they don’t pay a dime to go to community college. Yet, their graduation rates tend to hover around 30%. Assuming that just making college tuition free at these institutions is going to somehow automatically increase student success rates, I think, is really naive.”

Richard Vedder, also of the AEI and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, wrote in Forbes: “The evidence is strong that students do better in college when they have ‘skin in the game,’ that is, when they have to pay part of the cost. Thus, even controlling for other factors, students graduate in higher proportions from relatively more expensive private schools than public institutions.” It’s a bit like what they used to call the the “Chivas Regal Effect”—the idea that families tend to equate high price with quality.

Other critics worried about using scarce resources for students who may not be financially needy. The Washington Post editorialized that “under Mr. Obama’s plan, taxpayers would pay even for those who could pay for themselves. If additional money can be found for education, why not direct it to those who face the highest barriers? Further increasing the size of Pell Grants, for example, would be a more progressive way to help very needy students. Larger Pell Grants would also be usable at four-year colleges and universities, which could give some poor students a better chance at success, and not just at community colleges.”

The Century Foundation’s Richard D. Kahlenberg countered in the Atlantic, however: “While some argue that free tuition for upper- and middle-class students is a waste of resources, in fact it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that community colleges are socioeconomically integrated. We have known since Brown v. Board of Education that separate educational institutions for black and white—or for poor and rich—are rarely equal.”

Initiatives like the NEBHE-Davis Education Foundation’s Higher Education Innovation Challenge aim to contain higher ed costs while ideally passing along savings to students via lower prices. The price benefit of the Obama proposal seems clear enough, but critics are concerned about the cost side of the equation. As Educational Policy Institute President Watson Scott Swail, blogged: “The idea of free fees does little to help with the higher costs of community college, including books, meals, occupancy. ”

And indeed, the White House proposal would cover tuition but not costs such as rent, food and childcare that can also deter lower-income and minority students.

Obama’s announcement—and media coverage of it—took pains to mention that to be eligible, students would have show dedication by maintaining a 2.5 GPA.

To participate, community colleges would have to offer academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities or occupational training programs with high graduation rates that lead to in-demand degrees and certificates. One key is so-called “middle-skills” occupations that demand more than high school but less than a bachelor’s degree.

The roughly half of community college students who pursue associate degrees or certificates in career or technical fields, such as healthcare and manufacturing, experience strong earnings upon graduation. The roughly half who pursue liberal-arts degrees as stepping stones to four-year degrees don’t do as well from an earnings standpoint.

The initial reactions to the proposal were wide-ranging.

The American Federation of Teachers greeted the news with a tweet: “This is def going to ignite students across America (and upset for-profit colleges). Let’s get to work @USStudents”

Yet the news also had a way of raising every possible bad side effect: more undermatching, too little counseling for transfer to four-year institutions and the concern that scarce resources would be  directed to students who don’t need them. The Chronicle of Higher Education summed up all the negativity in a piece noting that some representatives of higher education sectors “aren’t quite so bullish. One of their greatest fears: that the plan, if enacted, could end up pushing a large number of students away from their institutions and into community colleges.”

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities was lukewarm, commending Obama’s focus on college access and affordability but warning: “A thorough examination must include whether such an allocation of limited federal financial resources focused on eliminating tuition at a subset of institutions for all students is the optimal strategy. It is important to note that low-income students face significant costs beyond tuition. Further, we must pay attention to the unintended consequences of federal price intervention on enrollment patterns and baccalaureate attainment. Finally, the proposed policy should be reviewed for its sustainability. Potentially this program could be in significant demand, which could drain federal and state resources (for those states that would choose to participate). This demand may well result in a rationing of available slots at community colleges or in diminished quality because of drastically reduced per-student expenditures.”

A community college student voiced similar caveats. “Many schools already provide the pathways for that type of guidance and counseling to occur, they just need to be reexamined and reinvigorated instead of ignored and replaced,” wrote Rachel Kanakaole, the head of the San Bernardino Valley Community College chapter of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. “Another major question this proposal brings up is one of capacity. Again, using my community college as an example, with close to 13,000 students enrolled full-time, classroom space is already extremely limited, financially and physically. Schools would be pressured to create additional course offerings to accommodate higher enrollment, which is already an issue colleges across the country have had great difficulty with.”

The plan could have special implications for New England state policies. Early details suggested the federal funding would cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college tuition, with participating states expected to contribute the remaining funds. The administration projected that community college students would save an estimated $3,800 in tuition per year, but tuition in New England is higher than average, so the states could be on the hook for more.

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.







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