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By Paul Bradley  /  
2016 April 26 - 06:25 am

Breaking Free

Untethered from Washington, Free Tuition Initiatives On the Rise


CHICAGO — When President Obama announced last year his proposal to provide free community college to almost all Americans, nearly every Washington pundit predicted that Congress would do nothing with the plan. A lawmaking body too polarized, too deadlocked to get even simple things done surely would be unable to deal with such a sweeping proposal.

The lawmakers did not disappoint. Though two bills on “America’s College Promise” have been introduced by minority Democrats, the majority Republicans who set the congressional agenda have all but ignored the president’s proposal and turned their attention to this year’s election.

But Washington’s inertia has obscured the emergence of a significant trend: all around the country, the movement to make two years of community college universally available to all Americans in the same way that a free elementary and secondary education is afforded all Americans is growing in states, cities and institutions.

Obama gave the effort a nudge last September when he unveiled the College Promise Advisory Board, a coalition of community college leaders, educators, politicians, foundations and businesses working to call attention to existing free two-year college models and push the free tuition message nationally. The bipartisan board is co-chaired by Second Lady Jill Biden former Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer and Martha Kanter, a professor of higher education at New York University and former undersecretary of education.

The nudge became a full-fledged push when the White House this week pledged $100 million to expand workforce training programs at community colleges. Grants will be awarded through the Labor Department to partnerships between employers, training programs and community colleges. Award recipients must extend tuition-free training programs to unemployed and low-income workers to enter high-demand industries.

Even prior to the White House announcement, the free-tuition movement was gaining traction. Earlier this month, Kentucky became the latest state to promise to pay community college tuition for all state high school graduates, as long as they take 15 credits and maintain at least a 2.5 GPA. Two weeks earlier, Detroit launched the Detroit Promise, under when students who graduate from any city high school will be guaranteed two tuition-free years at one of five Detroit-area community colleges.

“We are making a promise to every single child who graduates from a high school in the City of Detroit that you will have your first two years of college paid for,” Mayor Mike Duggan said in announcing the plan.

Kentucky and Detroit join a growing roster of states, cities and institutions embracing the idea of two years of free community college. According to the College Promise Campaign, more than 120 college promise programs exist in 29 states. Most notable is the one in Tennessee, which in 2016 enters the second year of the Tennessee Promise program, which pays the community college tuition of thousands of recent high school graduates.

There, the initial results of the program have been promising. More than 80 percent of Tennessee Promise students enrolled in the fall of 2015 returned for their second semester. Data released by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission showed an average retention rate of 80.6 percent for the 16,291 students who used the scholarship program to go to community or technical college tuition-free.

The free college movement was a primary topic at the recent convention of the American Association of Community Colleges, which attracted more than 2,000 community college leaders to Chicago earlier this month. In sessions large and small, college leaders were given a primer on how to return to their communities and build support for free community college at the local level.

“We want free community college for every student who is willing to work for it,” said Kanter. The campaign, together with its companion campaign “Heads Up America,” is stepping up its effort to build widespread support and broad public understanding that a free community college education is a wise investment in America’s future.

“We want to raise the profile of community colleges in a significant way,” Kanter said. “We want to be able to showcase these initiatives so they can be modeled for local communities.”

The campaign rests on three central pillars, Kanter said: First, the country must do a better job of maximizing the power of its education system to prepare America to compete internationally; second, rising college costs and debt threaten to foreclose the promise of college as a path to a better life for too many poor and middle class families; and finally, there is the concern that skyrocketing college endangers America’s economy and social fabric, forcing people to put off decisions to start a family or buy a car or a home.

Advocates say that free community college should follow in the tradition of landmark educational initiatives that opened the doors of education to millions of people and triggered unprecedented prosperity: free high school for all, the creation of land-grant universities and the GI Bill.

“The belief that a high school education was fundamental to the nation made a huge difference,” said Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College and a member of the advisory board. “What we saw immediately after the GI Bill were decades of growth and prosperity.”

The drive for free community college is predicated on the belief that a high school education is not enough to thrive in a 21st Century global economy. By the year 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some form of post-secondary education, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Some 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree and another 30 percent will require at least some college or an associate degree. The center predicts that the country, at the current rate of production, will fall short by 5 million workers with a postsecondary education by 2020.

“I think this is the most important public policy question of my lifetime,” said Joe May, chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District. “Every college, every state is different. But everyone can work for something that works in their community.”

“It’s not just about the individual benefit that the student receives. It’s about the overall benefit to society. This really is a quality of life campaign.”

But not everyone agrees that free community college will increase the number of degree-holders. A poll conducted by the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (AHEAD) at the University of Pennsylvania found that while college affordability is a growing concern, doubts persist on the efficacy of free community college tuition. The poll asked alumni of the Executive Doctorate program in Higher Education Management at Penn to weigh in on the free community college movement. Respondents were sharply divided.

While 42 percent of responding higher education leaders agreed or strongly agreed that free tuition at community colleges is a good idea, nearly as many, 35 percent, disagreed or strongly disagreed. Respondents also had mixed views about the likely effects of free community college; they were divided on whether free community college would increase enrollment or the number of associate degrees produced by community colleges.

Many noted that a free tuition policy, by itself, does not address other issues facing community colleges, including the adequacy of state and local funding, required academic and student support, poor academic readiness among entering students and the limited enrollment capacity of community colleges.

AHEAD is working with the College Promise Campaign on a research project designed to provide answers to the questions on the effects of free community college. The research project will spotlight college promise programs and their impact on postsecondary access and success, lifetime earnings, and civic and contributions after college.

To supporters of free community college for all, the idea is also a matter of social justice. Community colleges welcome more poor students and students of color than any other higher education sector, even as the lion’s share of public money flows to fouryear universities.

“Just as we don’t say you can’t have a high school diploma because you can’t pay for it, we should say the same for a community college certificate or degree,” said Mellow. “It’s time to say it. It’s time to demand it.”

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