President Obama’s plan for free community college tuition: first thoughts

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.
White House free community college image
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).

What can we make of this audacious proposal?  Some thoughts:
SW Tenn. Community College

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?

(photo by bradmontgomery)

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21 Responses to President Obama’s plan for free community college tuition: first thoughts

  1. All really great points. My view on this is very basic. Without getting too deep into the woods, if you live in Denmark, for instance, four years of higher education are completely free. Obama is only asking for two years. Regarding education, as it is in Denmark It should be the same in the U.S., regardless of anyone’s economic status. All these politicians and such who come up with all these reasons for not doing it are simply blowing their horns against something that would make our country greater and more productive. Simplistic reasoning, but true, I think.

    • That’s a very appealing vision, George.
      Do you think we could replace the federal student loan and grant system with direct tuition support?

      • glorenzo says:

        I think the federal system works great for single low-income students who live at home. Middle income people,have a more difficult time, I think, in getting enough federal aid to avoid serious debt accumulation. Then of course, there is the whole issue of books, which are costs that are over and above what a Pell grant, for instance, will cover. And books are still very expensive – if fact, ridiculously expensive in most instances. Everything becomes more complex when you start looking at how some individuals have hidden expenses, such as suddenly incurring an unexpected medical expense because their health insurance deductible has not been met. So, overall, I think life would surely be easier for everyone if the federal government just took care of the first two years, regardless of all sort of other factors.that come into play with federal aid applications. Nobody should have to go into debt to earn a two-year degree.

      • Good thoughts, George. Books and fees really build up – surely open education should be an obvious good by now!
        And especially about sudden costs.

  2. I have only heard one presentation on the plan here in Tennessee. The presentation was at the Tennessee Communication Association conference last spring and was by a spokesperson from the governor’s office. She was not really able to answer the questions posed by faculty and administrators who were in attendance. The governor’s office underestimated the audience in my opinion. Since most of us were from 4-year institutions we had some serious concerns.

    I really don’t know how it is going to work out here in TN or how it will impact enrollment at 4-year institutions. The later of those is of course a major concern to those of us at 4-year institutions. Questions I see to be asked will this program have an impact upon standards? Having taught as an adjunct at a community college in TN for 24 years I suspect the answer to that question will be a very mixed bag. Students at the community college I taught at range from those who were not ready for college work to those who could succeed anywhere.

    I don’t think any hard data exists on how this will work out. Experiments in education are a good thing. I just hope this one doesn’t end up being a political football in terms of the outcomes rather than being something to genuinely provide more education to deserving people.

    • What kind of impacts on 4-year institutions do you foresee, Jim – students preferring CCs for price reasons?

      • drjparker2014 says:

        I don’t really see much of a problem for institutions like Austin Peay but the pressure that many schools are already under, ie your many mentions of the Queen Sacrifice, give me concern that we might see many other schools which are struggling financially will be forced to either make even more cuts or will go under.

      • That worries me as well, Jim. I wonder how many students will be tempted by free tuition.
        Flip side: I wonder if non-CCs will start a campaign to denigrate CCs.

  3. drjparker2014 says:

    The conference was last fall not last spring.

  4. Josh Fleming says:

    My colleague’s take on this focused on the GPA requirement.

    We think grade inflation is bad now – how will faculty respond to the pressure to keep students on-board?

  5. I found the timing very interesting. Here in Minnesota, the legislature has convened a new session with a focus on education. One of the first bills proposed is to offer tuition free votech/comm colleges. Many of these institutions started out tuition free up until the mid seventies. In addition to free tuition to two year schools, the state is also looking at offering college credits for on the job apprentice training – working with business and industry to prepare skilled workers. Also included is load forgiveness for rural healthcare workers and investments in early childhood education.
    Our workshop sessions at Alexandria Technical and Community College featured campus conversations on strategic enrollment. These will be interesting discussions in light of what the state legislature proposes, and this new federal initiative. It may well boost enrollments which would be a plus for us in the rural community colleges.

    • Fascinating, Jay. I wonder if this has become a Democratic party strategy, perhaps in the wake of November’s disaster.

      Congratulations on the boosted enrollment, if that happens. Do you think other higher ed institutions will be displeased?

  6. VanessaVaile says:

    Among adjunct faculty, the reaction is mixed, falling into two camps so far: jubilation (more TT slots at CCs) or suspicion (paid for by further adjunct exploitation). Based on plans elsewhere and higher ed trends, the cc plan may not mention online but probably depends on it ~ as well as increased use of course packs from Pearson and other textbook publishers. More machine grading seems likely too. We’ve seen all that coming for quite some time, but this seems likely to speed up the process.

    Reservations here and stronger ones here

    I’m bookmarking them as they come in

  7. bboessen says:

    I’m going to withhold judgment on this until there are a few more details – for example, who is the administration including in their 9 million students? And a better estimate of the actual cost. I’m sure there will be a number of unintended side-effects within and among institutions and states if this takes effect. But even before all of that, the political nature of the issue has to be addressed, and I just don’t see the President’s political opponents letting this one by unless there is a clear political benefit to them to do so.

  8. glorenzo says:

    Unfortunately open ed resources have not yet taken hold across the board – I had to pay more than 500 dollars in mostly useless books for my son this semester – most he can’t even sell back. Faculty don’t take the time to utilize open ed resources – only the ones who really care about this and will go the extra mile in finding good resources. I’ve been auditing classes as a senior – the faculty I have seen so far are very smart, good lecturing skills, but they really don’t put the effort in to save students any money on book fees. I showed one how he could save students money through ebooks and KIndle unlimited that were available for his course, for instance – he said thanks but no thanks, figuratively speaking. My opinion in general is that students across the nation should be protesting the high cost of education, including the books issue. If this were to happen in large numbers across the country, maybe we would see this country’s plutocracy/poverty issues finally getting some attention. Sorry for the rant but come on, folks, let’s just make the two years free and stop all the politics and bureaucratic waste of energy.

    • That’s a fine rant, George.
      I hear this from students on every campus I visit. And I rarely meet professors who teach with OER. Librarians and technologists tend to be better informed.

      Is there an active student lobbying group for this?

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