By Molly Ashline, Staff Writer
Published in print Jan 21, 2015
President Obama’s proposal calls for free community for all eligible students.
On Jan. 9, President Obama visited Tennessee to introduce his proposal to make community college education free to all students.
He outlined a program, which, if approved by Congress, would have the federal government paying 75 percent of the bill and states providing the remaining 25 percent.
The White House is projecting the program will cost approximately $60 billion over 10 years.
Obama’s plan for free tuition includes conditions like maintaining a 2.5 grade point average and making progress toward a degree or transfer.
This proposal was met with both praise and criticism.
Proponents and critics argue about the economic strategies that should be implemented and the potential side effects higher education could experience; however, both sides seem to agree on the need to improve and expand education in North Carolina and across the country.
Mike Tarrant, UNCG’s director of strategic initiatives, echoed this consensus by saying, “Regardless of political affiliation, we do hear that workforce development and providing more Americans with more access to higher education is a direction the country needs to be heading in.”
Many within the domain of education repeat this sentiment.
“As a member of the State Board of Community Colleges, I am open to efforts that expand access to community colleges,” North Carolina Treasurer Janet Cowell said in a statement to The Carolinian.
Despite this seemingly universal desire to make education better and more accessible to more people, the devil is in the details.
One problem, of course, is cost.
A lot of money may be needed to make community college free. Who pays and how will be considerations for both Congress and individual states.
“I would need to find out more about this plan—especially the source of funding—before considering its implications for North Carolina,” Cowell asserted.
Funding is a major factor for opponents of Obama’s proposal.
Aside from the roughly $60 billion cost of providing free tuition for all qualified students, Obama also wants the government to continue providing financial aid to subsidize the extra costs of college, like books and transportation.
This money would likely have to come from tax increases, which may be a hard sell in a Republican dominated Congress.
Proponents, on the other hand, have argued that implementing this plan will lead to lower loan default rates. A decrease in loan defaults may save up to an estimated $1 billion in overall cost.
Another problem, aside from the greater cost, would be how community colleges will handle the potentially large influx of students.
“I think anytime you make a product free, you know you’re going to have more students interested in it and exploring it,” Tarrant said.
Tarrant also referenced Tennessee’s community college program, after which Obama’s proposal is loosely modeled. Tennessee’s program picks up the cost of tuition and fees that financial doesn’t already cover for students.
This program is different from the universally free community college that Obama outlined. While Obama’s proposal is perhaps more attractive to students and educators, the implementation could be more costly than Tennessee’s model.
Students are likely to flock to either model.
A probable increase of students with the dramatic decrease of cost to students is another concern for educators who worry it will put a strain on college resources.
“A commitment to success, as well as access, requires a commitment not just to low tuition, but also to quality instructors, well-equipped labs, classrooms and other resources that our state and national leaders will also have to weigh when considering the full equation,” N.C. Community College System President Dr. Scott Ralls told The Carolinian.
Assuredly, Obama’s proposal to make community colleges free across the country has varied implications, but many educators are behind the idea because they see community colleges as an integral part of the education system.
Nikki Baker, UNCG’s assistant director of strategic initiatives, commented on the relationship UNCG has with community colleges, saying, “I think that we’ve already been looking at ensuring that we’re good partners for the residents and the taxpayers of North Carolina by leveraging all resources to provide access to students where they are and based on what they need, so I think that’s one advantage UNCG has, and clearly we have a lot of transfer students.”
Baker went on to emphasize that all levels of education work as parts of a whole.
“I think that’s one thing to remember in the dialogue, is that we don’t always exist in these separate vacuums,” she argued.
Many believe making community colleges free to students will solidify these relationships between universities, community colleges and high schools. In accomplishing that, some speculate it would change the student preparation for higher education.
“It is actually going to be planned for students to start thinking about community college as an option very early in their high school experience,” Tarrant explained, “Which, in turn, makes them better prepared for the challenges of that transition.”
Tarrant also mentioned that this attitude of preparedness has the potential to improve retention rates in higher education, which colleges are always trying to accomplish.
Higher retention rates are expected from advocates due to the increased coordination of all levels of education. This preparedness and fluidity of education for students is expected to reduce the need for remedial and repeated courses.
A quicker path through the higher education system would hopefully decrease student dropout and student debt.
Opponents disagree with the theory that coordination between community colleges, four-year institutions and high schools would be a result of making community college free.
Many argue that free tuition at the community college level will lead to a funneling of funds into two-year schools while other schools are ignored.
Politicians, educators and students seem to agree that free community college will change the face of public education in the United States if it becomes a reality.
The challenge will be making it a reality.
To Tarrant, the pros of implementing zero-tuition community college outweigh the cons.
“Higher education is an investment,” he said, “and it’s an investment that the public benefits from.”