President Obama has raised the idea of making the first two years of community college free.
What I’d like to do to is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who’s willing to work for it.
This is a major initiative for American higher education with potentially historic implications. It’s still only a floated concept at this stage, since a fuller announcement is due later today, and a more formal version expected eleven days from now during the State of the Union speech. So at this point we can only poke at what’s out there and make some educated guesses.
What is out there now includes Obama’s statement about students “working for it.” That must refer to this bullet point on the White House blog post:
Students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program.
I don’t see any mention of mandatory work-study or after college work, so this might be what “working for it” covers.
Also on the White House post’s bullet point list is this commandment to community college administrations:
Community colleges will be expected to offer programs that are either 1) academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities, or 2) occupational training programs with high graduation rates and lead to in-demand degrees and certificates. Community colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.
Many American community colleges already do 1+2, as far as I can tell. Nearly every one I’ve visited is engaged in the improving student outcomes part, too. So I’m not sure if this represents a major change in the internal workings of community college (but see below).
How will this be financed? According to the White House blog post,
Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. Participating states will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.
What does that mean in dollars? The White House hasn’t said. A Bloomberg source thinks five billion per year. The LA Times estimates “tens of billions of dollars”. A quick calculation multiplying the White House numbers of 9 million students and $3800 annual tuition yields $34,200,000,000. USA Today thinks “nearly $70 billion.”
Politically, I’m not sure how this can happen. If the federal government is to take up the cost in a major way, the House and Senate are unlikely to approve. Previous, more friendly (!) Congresses have rejected related community college support plans. Speaker of the House John Boehner’s press secretary was skeptical. One Tea Party site hates it already. Others see this as a states versus federal government issue:
A top GOP aide in Washington, D.C., pushed back on the attempt to “federalize” a state idea.
“If Haslam and Tennessee can put this program together without additional federal support, why can’t the other states do the same thing?” the aide said. “Washington programs usually end up with a whole boatload of Washington rules, conditions and mandates and inevitably end up screwing up the original program the idea is based upon.”
Many states, such as the Republican-led ones which resist as much Obamacare as they can, don’t seem likely to pick up their portion. One state, Tennessee, where the president is going to announce this today, already has its own free community college system.
Another political issue concerns socio-economic class. Such an infusion of support might mostly help middle class and wealthy students.
Bryce McKibben, a former Association of Community College Trustees policy analyst who recently became a policy adviser to Democrats on the Senate education committee, has noted potential flaws. For instance, the program could end up doing more for less needy students than those who need it the most, because low-income applicants may already be covered by Pell grants and other federal aid.
Moreover, as one observer notes, “making tuition free for all students regardless of their income is a missed opportunity to focus resources on the students who need aid the most.” Additionally, low income students face financial barriers other than tuition: fees, room and board, medical expenses.
This proposal extends the popular idea that everyone needs college. According to Politico,
White House director [of the Domestic Policy Council] Cecilia Muñoz... said Obama aims to make college “the norm in the same way high school is the norm now.”
That sentiment is echoed by a community college leader:
“This will basically make community college like high school in terms of access,” said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
If this comes to pass it would push against my peak higher education idea.
What does this mean for community colleges? Remember that they teach more students than any other sector, 43% of higher ed enrollment in one accounting (Paul Osterman in Reinventing Higher Education, 2011). They are also vastly underdiscussed in national conversations about higher education, which tend to overfocus on the Ivies. Would Obamas plan increase enrollment at community colleges, and can the latter handle the former? It might.
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, called the plan “a potential game changer that could encourage millions more students to consider, apply, and enroll in postsecondary education.” [emphases added]
Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education, said the president’s plan would increase enrollment at community colleges in participating states. “This will put capacity pressure on community colleges,” he said. “We think this is a good problem to have.”
Technology 1: I haven’t found any mention of computer-mediated teaching and learning in this proposal. No sign of MOOCs or other distance learning platforms. That’s interesting.
Technology 2: note that this announcement appeared through social media channels. The most informative bit so far comes from a White House blog post. The announcement itself appears as a web video clip hosted on Facebook. The announcement also claimed a Twitter hashtag, #FreeCommunityCollege. Official communications also included a Vine clip.
What do you think of the president’s idea?