President Barack Obama recently announced an initiative to make the first two years of community college or technical school free for all students who enroll at least half-time and maintain a minimum 2.5 GPA. The plan would draw approximately $60 billion from federal funds over the next 10 years to cover 75 percent of the cost, and each state would subsidize the last 25 percent.
The plan, modeled after programs implemented in Chicago and Tennessee, ignores federal aid such as Pell Grants when paying for tuition, leaving students to use them to pay for books, housing, and any other expenses. Some community colleges (e.g. for-profit) would not qualify for aid under Obama’s plan, which is intended to drive home the importance of literacy and a well-educated populace.
Many are critical of “America’s College Promise.” A few point out that it may keep students and federal funding away from four-year colleges. Others question if this is necessary, as many students are able to afford the costs of tuition on their own. Some want the college initiative to be at the state level, rather than being a federal affair.
Federal funding is huge, especially as our nation carries an $18 trillion debt. Legislators are right in wondering where this money will come from, as the U.S. doesn’t seem to have any spare change. Despite this, there are options for funding that don’t draw from increasing taxes, such as lotteries or cutting back on the defense budget.
Under this plan, more students would consider community college rather than digging themselves into thousands of dollars of debt by attending a four-year college or university. This consequence, however, isn’t as severe as many think—students will choose what they’re financially comfortable with, and for many, debt is worth it for whatever they career they pursue. There will not be an diaspora of students flooding community colleges and crowding out others.
Some argue that the costs of tuition are low enough for many families to afford. According to College Board, community college tuition fees average $3,300 a year. Undoubtedly, there are students who can afford this, but the concept of extending that financial promise isn’t just a “freebie,” but rather a statement of principle that can be applied to why we still have public K-12 school.
Nevertheless, tuition only accounts for part of a student’s college fees—some pay for their own housing, transportation, books, and food, which can easily outweigh how much school costs. The New York Times reports that one-in-three community college students come from families whose annual incomes fall below $20,000, and many of those students work part- or full-time to supplement fees, causing them to suffer in school and, ultimately, drop out.
Rather than thinking of community colleges as drop-out factories, legislators and educators should reform the system to make a degree more attainable for students. With 112 accredited community colleges in California, fees have risen from a paltry $11 to $46 per credit as state funding cuts services at these schools. In March 2013, the Public Policy Institute of California reported that enrollment has dropped so severely that “had participation rates remained at 2008-09 levels, the community college system would today be serving an additional 600,000 students.”
Officials cited the decrease in enrollment as a result of decreased state funding. The funding from this program should easily supplement services and programs for these students. UC and CSU funding has been cut drastically in recent years as well, so subsidizing the cost would be beneficial in getting the higher education system back on track here.
If Obama’s plan goes through, it could mean wonders in improving the quality of education and experience. Many low-income individuals of color could afford college, opening up access to disenfranchised groups. With an associate’s degree, they would have better access to jobs that no longer hire high school graduates, strengthening the American economy by having more qualified individuals in the workforce.
So in the end, think of Obama’s “America’s College Promise” as an investment. Few negative effects could come out of this, and it would provide a good boost to the higher education system—something that should be incredibly important here at a nationally-recognized university.