Last Friday (Jan. 9), President Barack Obama introduced an ambitious higher education proposal called America's College Promise, a plan that would make the first two years of community college tuition-free for qualified students nationwide.
Debra Bragg is the director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership and a Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the College of Education at Illinois. Bragg spoke with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about Obama's proposed program.
Although the president did not provide a lot of details about his plan, the White House estimates that it would benefit some 9 million students and cost $70 billion over a decade, with the federal government picking up three-quarters of the tab and participating states the remainder. With state funding for public universities on the decline, and higher education plagued by problems with affordability, access and low completion rates, is Obama's proposal misguided?
I think President Obama's proposal is about agenda setting. It's about keeping the issues of college access and completion alive through his presidency and beyond. The details on how this proposal would be paid for on any level are far from clear, but that might not be the point.
I believe the president's primary concern is about ensuring that a robust conversation continues around college access and affordability, with community colleges being the continuing centerpiece of his higher education agenda.
However, the new Congress does not bode well for President Obama's proposal. I don't think it will pass anytime soon.
Critics say the proposed plan fails to address problems of college affordability and completion. They also contend that it would provide financial assistance to many students who can afford tuition, demotivating them to succeed at college because they have no "skin in the game." Would this program be a poor investment?
Fixing financial aid for all higher education students is a very good idea. It would go a long way to helping accomplish Obama's goals of improving access and completion.
If we could make college affordable for all students who attend all kinds of institutions, would that address problems of access and affordability? Absolutely. But whether that would fix the whole problem, and Obama's plan would become a moot point, I don't know.
However, to say that all community college students are capable of paying their tuition and don't need the financial support that the president's policy would provide suggests a very thin knowledge about community college students and a blind eye to the stratification that is part of U.S. higher education.
Community colleges enroll a higher proportion of low-income students than any other public higher education sector. Because of rules that limit access to Pell for part-time students and other restrictions, some community college students are actually less likely to get Pell grants than students attending public four-year colleges and universities. This is why fixing Pell eligibility is important to everyone.
Sure, some students who attend community colleges are middle- and high-income, but the proportions are far lower than other higher education sectors.
The issue of whether free tuition would reduce student motivation to study hard and finish college could be legitimate, but we just don't know. We do know that Pell is a positive force in college access and completion, so whether extending financial support to free tuition would result in a similar positive outcome is unknown.
The president said his plan would require community colleges to adopt "promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes." What forms might those measures take, and could they adversely impact institutions that primarily serve marginalized populations?
Obama has already invested far more federal funding in higher education by investing in community colleges than any president. This funding is dependent largely on "promising and evidence-based institutional reforms" that not only help students graduate but help them get good-paying jobs - that's really been central to the president's investment in community colleges.
These programs focus on student outcomes and are directed mostly at populations that are minority, low-income and first-generation students. The success of these students is already pivotal to the flow of federal dollars under the current administration.
The Trade Adjustment Act Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program, funded at nearly $2 billion, represents the Obama administration's largest investment, but there are other initiatives.
Over half of the community colleges in the U.S. have received this funding - often millions of dollars.
I would assume these same priorities would be present in any new legislation the president proposes.
Obama said his plan would require community colleges to offer academic programs that transfer to four-year institutions, or occupational training programs with high graduation rates that lead to in-demand degrees and certificates. Is this going to restrict the curricula offered at community colleges?
These two functions already represent the centerpiece of the historic mission of community colleges, so no, I do not see emphasis on transfer and occupational training as narrowing their mission. In fact, under the TAACCCT program, the preponderance of emphasis was on workforce development, without much attention to transfer.
So, given the recognition of transfer is a genuine foci of new legislation, I would see Obama's new proposal doing a better job of supporting the comprehensive mission of community colleges, which includes transfer.