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President’s audacious community college plan misses the mark

Welcome back to campus. With a new semester and a new year come new aspirations. I think I got a bit too insular with my column before. I want to take this time to refine my aim. I loathe the Concordia Bubble, and I want this column to help pop it.

Let’s dive in to the most important higher education news to develop over our break:  On January 8, as a preview to his State of the Union, President Obama announced his intention to make two years of community college available to “anybody who’s willing to work for it” free of charge. This is an audacious proposal, and even private liberal arts college students should take note of it.

President Obama’s proposal would divide the cost of tuition between the federal and state governments, freeing students who maintain a 2.5 GPA from the burden of tuition. This is a remarkably simple proposition:  free tuition. The ramifications of this policy change, however, would be numerous.

Let’s first consider how this change would affect students. It’s safe to say most people perceive community colleges as serving only the underprivileged, but this is not the full story. As President Obama notes in his address, community colleges are the largest arm of higher education in the United States, enrolling students from many diverse backgrounds. The rhetoric regarding this proposal still seems to center on the disadvantaged: it appears to be a proposal to help those who could not otherwise afford community college. However, if the state is to assist those on the bottom of the income ladder, paying tuition alone may not suffice.  The National Review’s Reihan Salam notes that net community college fees for families earning under $60,000 a year is already $0 on average. The poorest families receive Pell Grants and other forms of aid that already subsidize the tuition of community college. Tuition may not be a barrier for these students, but there are myriad more. For instance, San Bernardino Valley College student Rachel Kanakole enumerates other obstacles to community college success, including “course offerings, classroom space, and most importantly, proper guidance to navigate the complex systems that are the basis of the college itself.”  It is possible that under President Obama’s proposals, grants and other forms of aid could assist students with cost of living expenses, making full time enrollment a possibility as students need to work fewer hours.

Now that we have considered how this policy would affect students, let’s examine how it would affect institutions. First, it goes without saying that this proposal would dramatically alter community colleges. It’s hard to determine community college completion rates, but they are less than satisfactory. Earning a degree on time is laudable because it allows students to enter the job market full time with the boosted earnings an advanced degree affords. It is unclear that this proposal would improve students’ completion times. Taking this into consideration, Kanakole questions whether community colleges can provide the mentorship necessary to improve these outcomes. Second, this proposal could affect life at four year schools like Concordia. I think many students currently attending four year colleges and universities would find tuition-free community college an appetizing option. As well, some students may use this program to complete general education requirements for free prior to attending a four year college. As general courses are a huge component of any four year college’s revenue, a significant loss of students in these courses would transform the face of all of higher education, let alone community colleges.

This analysis ignores one critical component of President Obama’s proposal:  it requires Congressional approval. As he now presides over a Republican-controlled House and Senate, the likelihood of a signature Obama bill of any sort passing is close to nil. That said, at the time of this writing, no members of Republican leadership have categorically rejected this proposal, so there may be hope for it yet.

Personally, I think this program does an insufficient job of addressing the root causes of wage disparities. Evidence indicates higher education is a good investment.  The K-12 education system, however, is abysmal at preparing students for higher education. For example, of the more than half of the high school graduating class of 2015 that took the ACT, just over a quarter were prepared for college in all four subject areas. Past research has indicated, as I’ve written here before, that testing and wage disparities originate due to the United States’ incredible rates of childhood poverty. A country where one in three children live in poverty has more challenges than tuition-free schooling can help address. Helping students develop workplace-relevant skills is meaningful, but it is an improper first step.

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