This January President Obama unveiled a plan to “bring down to zero” the tuition cost for community college students around the nation. “Two years of college students will become as free and universal as high school is today,” Obama declared.
The White House estimates that around nine million students could benefit each year, at an estimated $60 billion cost over the coming decade. Under the president’s proposal, the federal government would fund three-quarters of the average cost of community college, while states that take part would pay for the rest. Students would be required to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA, be enrolled at least half-time and make steady progress toward their degree. Participating colleges would have to ensure that credits are transferable to four-year colleges or have effective job training programs.
“For CUNY community college students Obama’s proposal indicates the will to make access to a quality and affordable higher education achievable,” said Anne Friedman, PSC vice president for community colleges. “The fact that students wouldn’t be forced to study full-time can alleviate pressure to work excessive hours. When students can focus more on their studies, we can do more to improve retention and graduation rates.”
Obama laid out his plan in a Jan. 9 visit to Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville. Last year Tennessee’s state legislature approved legislation that established the “Tennessee Promise,” making community college tuition-free for every high school graduate in the state, through state lottery money. Tennessee is the first state to pass such a plan; Oregon and Mississippi are looking at similar proposals.
The president’s proposal, “America’s College Promise,” emphasizes improving student outcomes at community colleges, and a White House fact sheet detailing the plan singles out CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) as an effective way to improve student performance and boost rates of degree completion. The ASAP initiative waives tuition, helps pay for books and transit and increases resources for academic advising and other supportive services.
“We join with President Obama in offering ASAP as a national model to be expanded both here in New York and throughout the nation,” stated CUNY Chancellor James Milliken. “In 2014, ASAP produced a three year graduation rate of 57%, over triple the rate of urban community colleges nationwide.”
Under the Obama administration’s plan, the funds for eliminating students’ tuition burden would be “first dollars,” meaning that they could be used to cover tuition before other aid like Pell grants and federally-subsidized loans are tapped. This would facilitate using those other sources of aid to cover non-tuition expenses, like room and board or transportation. The proposal is not just limited to recent high school graduates.
Nowhere in the plan is there any discussion on adjuncts’ working conditions. Maria Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, told the Chronicle of Higher Education this is “a glaring omission,” asking, “Is it going to be funded on the backs of adjuncts?” While a White House fact sheet gives a framework for the plan, many details are still unknown. Both fans and critics agree these will need close scrutiny.
Obama’s dramatic proposal comes when lawmakers are preparing to renegotiate the federal Higher Education Act, which governs federal financing of college education. Progressive activists have come out strongly in support of the administration’s plan and argue that tuition-free community college should be “just a start.” Groups like Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America “say the proposal should be just the first step toward cost-free four-year public colleges,” reported the Congressional political newsletter The Hill.
Many higher education experts say the plan follows in the spirit of the original GI Bill, which sent nearly eight million World War II veterans to college. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told the Madison Capital Times that the Obama plan is “both smart and bold.”
Goldrick-Rab, a specialist on the financing of higher education, has been an advocate for free community college tuition. Last year she co-authored a report for the Lumina Foundation titled “Redefining College Affordability: Securing America’s Future with a Free Two-Year College Option.” The report recommended a reallocation of federal funds to make public colleges free while making a mix of stipends and work-study jobs available to cover living expenses.
In a recent article in the Guardian, Goldrick-Rab says that today the odds of getting a college degree are “more tightly linked to family income than ever before.” People from low-income families often pay nearly 40% of their income to attend community college, she notes, and middle-class families commonly spend a quarter of their income to enable a family member to attend a public university.
Rising Student Debt
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten also backed President Obama’s proposal. “With decades of stagnant wages and rising student debt, young people and returning adult students alike are either deterred from going to college or, when they do choose to attend, are buried under debt,” Weingarten said. “Students deserve a high-quality, affordable and accessible higher education,” she emphasized. “And our 21st-century economy needs an educated workforce prepared to compete.”
More details on the proposal are expected during the president’s State of the Union address on January 20. Many political observers say that the plan faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Congress – but precursors to the Obama plan have won broad support, sometimes crossing party lines. Tennessee Promise, which was advanced by Republican governor Bill Haslam, has seen more than 90% of the state’s high school graduates sign up, more than double initial expectations. Local plans for free community college tuition have been adopted in cities as diverse as Tulsa and Chicago.
The initial response from voters to Obama’s plan appears positive: a recent Rasmussen poll found that 47% of those surveyed supported it, while 39% are opposed.
“The most powerful and enduring American social policies - Social Security, infrastructure investments like the highway system and indeed public education itself - have always benefitted everyone,” wrote Sara Goldrick-Rab in a piece for the Guardian. “Congress should, if anything, seek to outdo Obama with an even more ambitious proposal, rather than negotiate to reduce his package.”