The Thought That Counts

Obama's free tuition plan is a hit among community college leaders, but some experts worry about details and whether the money could be more targeted.

January 12, 2015

Community college advocates like the spirit of President Obama's blockbuster free community college proposal. It’s the details, many still unknown, that worry some.

The White House wants $60 billion over a decade to go toward filling in tuition gaps for all Americans who meet the plan’s requirements. Several leaders at two-year colleges applauded the bold funding request, which they said could help millions of people, many of whom otherwise might not have considered attending college.

A full-time community college student would save an estimated $3,800 in tuition per year under the so-called America's College Promise, according to the administration. If passed by the U.S. Congress, which is unlikely, the feds would cover 75 percent of tuition expenses for eligible students. Participating states would be required to pay for the rest.

Free Tuition on "This Week"
Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, and Robert Kelchen, an expert on higher education finance, will discuss President Obama's proposal Friday on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's free news podcast. Sign up here for notification of new "This Week" podcasts.

The funds would not be a “last dollar” scholarship, which is money that covers the gap after federal aid is applied. A White House spokeswoman told Inside Higher Ed that Obama’s plan would “cover all of the tuition costs up front.”

This approach means needy students presumably could still receive Pell Grants and other aid after the federal government and states team up to pay for tuition. Students could use that money for living and other expenses. Some consumer groups and two-year college advocates would not have backed a last-dollar plan, because many community college students rely on Pell Grant money for expenses other than tuition.

Even so, not all community-college experts like Obama’s approach. 

Kay McClenney is an independent consultant working with community colleges who last year retired as director of Center for Community College Student Engagement. While McClenney said the program’s goals are “laudable,” she would prefer a more targeted use of funding.

The White House proposal would create “public subsidies for people who don’t need them,” she said, “in the face of excruciating need for students who do.”

Richard Kahlenberg had a different take. A senior fellow at the Century Foundation, Kahlenberg led a task force that in 2013 issued an influential report about the growing equity divide between the two-year college sector and the rest of higher education. Community colleges increasingly are a "separate but unequal" path for lower-income college students, the report found.

That's why Kahlenberg said it wouldn't be a bad thing if the White House plan encourages wealthier students to attend community college. "Economic segregation in community colleges helps explain the dismal results," he said, adding that evidence shows all students will benefit from more of an "economic mix."

More on the Obama Plan

  • Bipartisanship is on display as President Obama announces free community college plan in Tennessee, but proposal likely faces tough odds in Congress.
  • The president's free community college plan may change the balance between the federal government, states and colleges. 

The two national community-college groups also support Obama's plan. The American Association of Community Colleges praised the "bold" idea while the Association of Community College Trustees called it "unprecedented."

David Baime, the American Association of Community Colleges' senior vice president for government relations and research, said the White House proposal is a “very positive public policy” that seeks to funnel a large amount of money to lower-income students. And it comes at a time when many states are cutting support to the sector.

“Community colleges clearly enroll the neediest students in all of traditional higher education,” said Baime. “This is Obama doing what states should be doing.”

It also appears to be the case that the administration is trying to do something symbolically big and new because more incremental moves, such as increasing the size of Pell Grants, are almost sure to go nowhere in this Congress.

'GI Bill of the 21st Century'

The president’s announcement is a return to the focus he put on community colleges earlier in his presidency, most notably with a 2009 budget request for $12 billion in new support for the sector. That proposal eventually became $2 billion in job-training grants to two-year colleges.

On Friday Obama called community colleges the “centerpiece of my education agenda.”

Community college leaders welcomed the attention.

“This is like the GI Bill of the 21st century,” Thomas Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College, said in a written statement. “In order to maintain America's middle class we need to look at education as K-14 with two years at a community college."

Snyder, a former automotive executive who leads Indiana’s 32-campus community college system, said he fully supports the proposal. His system has been mulling a state-based scholarship concept, which would have similarities with the Tennessee program that Obama praised last week.

Likewise, Bernie Sadusky, the executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, said the benefits of the White House plan far outweigh its costs. He said the association was ready to help in the creation of a “free post-secondary tuition program that would achieve state and national educational and workforce developmental goals.”

California is the linchpin to any bold plan for two-year colleges. The state’s 112 community colleges enroll 2.1 million students. 

“Our first reaction is that we are very excited about the president’s plan to provide more opportunities for students to attend community colleges,” Brice W. Harris, the California system’s chancellor, said in a written statement.

The plan is still taking shape, Harris noted. And the $60-billion question, according to some community college leaders, is whether the feds and states would pony up the operating funds needed to serve new students brought in under the plan. The White House said the program would benefit an estimated 9 million students if all states participated.

Some community college leaders also may have blanched at vague “reform” language in an administration fact sheet.

Participating states’ higher-education budgets “must allocate a significant portion of funding based on performance, not enrollment alone,” the White House said. “Colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes."

Yet the vague references to new federal requirements didn’t generate much concern among community college leaders, at least publicly expressed ones. That may be due in part to the fact that few observers expect Congress to support Obama’s idea. But it's also because the plan is a historic attempt to direct more money to the sector.

"It’s time we update our approach to education and extend free high school to free community college," Kahlenberg said. "Everyone understands 'free.'"


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