Free for All
College Leaders Welcome Spotlight but Seek More Details
Mindful of the potential political obstacles, Obama administration officials sounded a note of caution when they announced “America’s College Promise,” a proposal that would guarantee free community college to about 9 million Americans.
They said that no matter how the proposal fared in the Republican-controlled Congress — and its prospects are dismal — it was important to at least start a conversation about higher education and the need to burnish American skills in an ever more competitive global economy.
Mission accomplished. Ever since the president traveled to Pellissippi Community and Technical College in Tennessee to announce his initiative, community colleges have basked in the media spotlight. The proposal has attracted attention from all parts of the political spectrum, from editorial boards to interest groups to college officials themselves.
“It really affirms what we’ve been doing,” said Thomas J. Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College, which enrolls nearly 200,000 on 30 campuses in Indiana. “Middle skill jobs are where the economy is growing. I think the national dialogue going forward will be about the value of a postsecondary credential.”
“Today’s community colleges are the equivalent of the auto plants and the steel mills of the past.” he added. “It’s a way for the country to build the middle class.”
As promised, Obama made the plan a central thrust of his State of the Union address. He said he’ll ask Congress to help pay for the $60 billion, ten-year initiative by raising taxes on the richest Americans.
“America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world,” Obama said. “But in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to do more. By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education…And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future. That’s why I am sending to this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.”
Predictably, reaction has broken down along partisan lines. A Washington Post- ABC poll found that 76 percent of Democrats back the idea of free community colleges, while 74 percent of Republicans oppose it. Overall, 53 percent of those polled supported the $60 billion plan, while 44 percent are against it.
Politics aside, community college leaders across the country have been lauding the proposal.
“The president’s proposal represents an immense potential investment in community colleges and in the talent needed to drive economic growth and increase social mobility across the United States,” said Josh Wyner, vice president and executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program in a statement. “At the same time, the proposal makes clear that states, community colleges, and students themselves must do their part to ensure that the unprecedented access this proposal offers is not hollow — that the 9 million students who stand to benefit from free community college actually learn, graduate, and attain the jobs and further education to which they aspire.”
Said Eduardo J. Padrón, president of Miami Dade College: “My colleagues and I applaud and support the president’s America’s College Promise proposal. We are confident that this initiative will make a tremendous difference in college completion and further improve our nation’s economy by creating a skilled workforce. The cost of college is most often the greatest barrier to college completion even when the desire and performance are there.”
But beneath the expansive rhetoric are concerns that merely welcoming more students to community colleges will not pay off in the way Obama has promised without the creation of needed student support systems and broader institutional reform.
“Increasing access, which this proposal is certainly intended to do, is part of the equation, but it’s only the beginning,” said Alison Kadlec, director of higher education and workforce programs for Public Agenda, a non-partisan research organization based in New York. “It’s critical to focus also on how the proposal would impact completion of certificates and degrees, transfer to four-year colleges and advancement into the labor market. Without a commitment to student success, the focus on access will ring hollow.”
Kay McClenney, formerly director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement and now a higher education consultant, welcomed the president’s proposal but said there are many questions it raises but does not answer.
“There is much that is right-minded about the proposal,” McClenney wrote in an email. “An advocate of college opportunity and equity can do nothing but applaud the fundamental objectives of broadening that opportunity while holding states, colleges, and students appropriately accountable for performance. That said, there are important questions and issues that yet need to be addressed and presumably will be the subject of robust discussion in coming weeks.”
The White House has been trying to fill in the blanks about the proposal. According to a fact sheet, students, to be eligible, must enroll at least half time, maintain a 2.5 GPA and make steady progress toward completing their academic program.
The community colleges they attend will need to offer programs that either fully transfer to local public four-year colleges and universities or are occupational training programs with high graduation rates and lead to degrees and certificates that are in demand among local employers. States would be expected pay for 25 percent of the program with the federal government paying 75 percent.
McClenney questioned whether the money is being directed to the right place. Community colleges have been underfunded for decades, and have been particularly starved of resources since the start of the Great Recession. Enrolling more students is sure to increase costs.
“There must be policy strategies for effectively leveraging needed operational funding from states and communities,” she wrote. “Tuition revenue covers only a portion (generally a small one) of the total institutional costs of educating a student. Colleges will need funding to provide highquality classes and support services for large numbers of new students. There may be facility costs as well, and those costs nearly always are covered by states and localities.”
She added that the administration must define rigorous performance standards for participating community colleges. Colleges must resist the impulse to move away from demanding programs and rigorous academic standards as new students flood in.
“Will the performance standards give weight to colleges and systems that excel in serving the highest-risk student populations, or will there be unintended incentives to serve only the best-prepared students?” McClenney asked.
Vincent Tinto, a distinguished university professor emeritus at Syracuse University, questioned whether the federal government has any business crafting performance standards for community colleges.
“It’s hard to understand how the federal government has a role in that,” he said. “The federal government has a limited role. Their role is finance. Community colleges are locally controlled.”
And colleges have huge tasks ahead in furthering the completion agenda, he said. They need more full-time faculty and professional development for those already on board. Students need more academic support. Remedial education needs an overhaul.
“You need reforms of current practice to create coherent curriculum pathways,” he said. “Students needs a coherent structure where they can get through the curriculum with some dispatch.”
“The question that remains is completion. The proposal, as stated, doesn’t say how resources will be allocated to further that goal. But what we can’t do is blame the victim. Community colleges are working very hard. Faculty are very dedicated. But they are constrained by a lack of resources.”
Snyder believes it will be to the states to fill the funding gaps.
“The states have to step up and fund their community colleges,” he said. “Indiana University gets eight times what we get in state funding. That’s just legacy. And that has to change.”