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By Paul Bradley  /  
2015 August 11 - 02:52 pm

The College Promise

Universal College Proposal Triggers Broad Discussion on Access, Affordability

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Advocates of free community college say it will would be well worth the investment by reducing debt and giving students a path to the middle class.

When President Obama first proposed making two years of community college free for nearly every American last January, most political pundits immediately dismissed the idea as impossible in a Congress so gridlocked by partisanship that it can’t complete simple tasks, let alone enact a sweeping initiative.

But while a Republican-controlled Congress consumed with cutting federal spending likely will not pass any bill the president supports, his proposal has touched off a broader discussion on how to reduce the cost of college and open the doors of higher education to disadvantaged groups. With states and individual colleges taking the lead, the idea of universal community college appears to be gaining traction.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin

Last month, Oregon became the second state to enact a free community college program when Gov. Kate Brown signed into law legislation that has been dubbed the Oregon Promise. Under the $10 million initiative — which includes a large chunk of cash for student support services — up to 6,000 students could benefit in 2016, when the law becomes effective. In addition to the tuition waiver, some students would be eligible for up to $1,000 for non-tuition expenses.

Democratic State Sen. Mark Haas, who sponsored the Senate version of the legislation, predicted the money will be a worthwhile investment for the state.

“Most of us agree that without some kind of training or education after high school there is a well-worn path to poverty,” he said in testimony about his proposal. “And poverty is expensive. A lifetime of food stamps is more expensive than the annual community college tuition of $3,000.”

“Oregon has a growing population of young people who have no job, no post-secondary education and no opportunity to get ahead. The Oregon Youth Commission says each one of these 70,000 young people between 18 and 24 costs taxpayers about $14,000 a year in social services and direct costs to society. The day one of them goes to work is the day they leave the welfare rolls.”

The first state to offer free tuition at community college was Tennessee, where an estimated 15,000 of recent high school students are headed to college and technical schools under provisions of Tennessee Promise. In the weeks prior to an Aug 1 deadline, many of those students were scrambling to complete eight hours of community service, a requirement to qualify for the tuition grant.

Some individual colleges are not waiting for their states to act. They have taken steps to provide students with two years of free community college. Earlier this year, Harper College, in suburban Chicago, launched the Harper College Promise Scholarship Program, a program designed to both increase access and prod high school students into honing academic skills.

Under the program, every student in the college’s service area can earn up to two years of tuition if they meet certain criteria: maintaining solid grades, having good attendance, passing all their classes and providing community service. In short, students are being asked to demonstrate that they are willing to do the things in high school that will make them successful in college.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.

“A college credential has never been more crucial to success than in today’s 21st century economy,” college President Kenneth Ender said in a statement. “This program has the potential to positively impact not only deserving and motivated students, but the entire region by presenting employers with an educated and skilled workforce.”

Under the program, students apply as ninth graders. They pledge to miss no more than nine school days a year throughout their high school careers. They must maintain solid grades: no D’s and no F’s. They must provide community service: ten hours as a high school sophomore, 15 hours as a junior and 20 hours as a senior.

Meanwhile, in Washington, many of the blanks in Obama’s community college proposal are being filled in. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., last month introduced the America College Promise Act, legislation embodying Obama’s goals for free community college.

Under the proposed legislation, nine million full-time community college students could save an average of $3,800 on tuition.

“Higher education should be a path to shared prosperity, not a path into suffocating debt,” Baldwin said in a statement. “Unfortunately college costs and student loan debt are holding back an entire generation and creating a drag on economic growth for our country. America needs to out-educate the rest of the world in order to better compete in a 21st century, skills-based economy. The America’s College Promise Act will strengthen workforce readiness and our economy.”

Added Scott: “Students and families are faced with the overwhelming burden of figuring out how to pay for college. America’s College Promise is a step in the right direction to help families gain access to quality, affordable higher education opportunities.”

The authors envision a federal investment of $79.7 billion over the next 10 years to provide free community college tuition to all eligible students.

According to an analysis by the American Association of Community Colleges, the bill’s primary features include:

• Funds would be awarded to states. States would have to provide a 25 percent match. Available funds would be distributed to states according to their proportion of eligible students nationally.

• States would have to commit to certain “evidence-based institutional reforms and innovative practices to improve student outcomes.” There is not an explicit mandate that any one reform be undertaken.

• Students would automatically qualify for a full tuition waiver for two academic years if they enroll in programs that can fully transfer via articulation agreement toward a bachelor’s or post-bachelor’s degree at a public institution or are enrolled in an occupational skills training program that leads to a recognized postsecondary credential in an in-demand industry sector.

• Only first-time students who maintain satisfactory academic progress would be eligible. Students would have to be enrolled on an at least half-time basis.

Significantly, the proposed also includes a “maintenance of effort” provision, requiring states to keep funding levels up if they want access to the new federal dollars, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

The legislation faces an uphill slog. No Republicans have signed on to the proposal, and no budgetary reduction or revenue increase has been identified to cover the program’s cost. Still, community college leaders have greeted the bill with enthusiasm.

“The legislation as introduced embodies a dramatic new concept in national education policy, ensuring that first-time students will be able to enroll in high-quality community college programs without having to pay tuition and fees,” said Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges.

“We believe that this policy will encourage more students to participate in college and succeed.”

Community college supporters remain mindful that free community college will not cure all that ails the sector. Colleges, they said, need to produce better results.

CCWeek file photo

In Tennessee, students were shown how to navigate applying for the Tennessee Promise free tuition program.

A statement released by Achieving the Dream, which advocates for community college reform, said “all efforts to increase access, especially one as sweeping as America’s College Promise, must be accompanied by deep, sustained attention to community college reforms that address persistently low graduation rates. In other words, our commitment to access must be matched or even exceeded by a commitment to success.”

“The combination of innovation on the ground, supportive state policies and meaningful investment will not only guarantee access but success for all low-income students attending any community college in any state. The time has come to invest in the institutions and strategies that can restore our nation’s economic competitiveness and fulfill America’s promise for a better life for ourselves and our children.”

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