Pushing for Free

Coalition is forming to rally businesses, foundations and other groups behind a national free community college plan. And supporters say they realize the idea may not come to fruition this year.

May 1, 2015

Since President Obama proposed a national free community college initiative, many have wondered if the idea has a chance of becoming reality. Few ideas seems to go anywhere in Washington, where political dysfunction runs rampant. At this month's American Association of Community Colleges meeting, enthusiasm remained high for the proposal, even as some community college presidents expressed skepticism over the feasibility of the plan.

Yet there are efforts to advance the free community college idea. A coalition -- not yet formally announced -- of business leaders, academics, mayors and foundations is looking to continue promoting the benefits and importance of the proposal.

“There are a lot of people thinking about this and organizing the way to go…. We all are working on a plan to say, ‘Could we join together and first do the analysis of what we want to accomplish? What are the challenges of getting the first two years of community college funded in a federal-state partnership?’” said Martha Kanter, a professor of higher education at New York University and former U.S. under secretary of education, who is involved in these efforts. “The president has put a stake in the ground to say education after high school should be a given just as K-12 education is a civil right. It's always been called a ‘promise’ but for too many people the promise was not delivered.”

Kanter said she's hoping to get a lot of people to rally around the idea that funding at least a two-year college degree is worth it and will create a healthy economy.

“This is an external grassroots on-the-ground effort and its primary focus at this stage is public relations and building energy and momentum from various sectors to promote the concept,” said Noah Brown, president and chief executive officer for the Association of Community College Trustees. “It's a good idea and we want to promote the idea to engage a larger conversation across all of the states about shifting the resource model so community colleges can serve more students and more successfully.”

“There's been a lot of discussion at a lot of levels here in D.C. and around the country on this,” said Walter Bumphus, president and chief executive officer of AACC, adding that the organization is also connected to the coalition.

Bumphus said he has had meetings with college leaders who have expressed interest in developing free community college programs or “promise” plans in their areas and corporate leaders who want to know how they can help push the initiative. 

“We still feel we're still working on this,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research for AACC, adding that this is a priority of the administration and they do want people to feel optimistic about it, although the odds are long that an actual program will resemble the size of the $60 billion America's College Promise initiative, he said. 

While the American Council on Education hasn't been included in the coalition, members praise the Obama administration for being committed to the free community college tuition goal, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs for ACE. 

“The president's plan hasn't, so far, gotten much traction on Capitol Hill for several reasons. It's estimated to cost $60 billion over five years, but reauthorization [of the Higher Education Act] has not gotten underway in either the House or Senate to any significant degree,” Hartle said. 

Hartle said he doesn't expect a big push for the proposal to begin until Congress reauthorizes No Child Left Behind. 

“Sixty billion is enormous amount, so it wouldn't surprise me to see additional ideas put forward down the road,” he said, adding there are also the politics of how this proposal may play out on both sides of the aisle when it is time for HEA reauthorization. 

Questions remain whether people in government will be willing to step up to fulfill the free college promise, Kanter said.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors sent a letter Monday to both the House and the Senate's education committees to implore them to support Obama's proposal. 

“The president's proposal for America's College Promise is inspired by city and state programs that are proving to be beacons of success, but we know that as our cities and metropolitan areas compete with other regions around the globe, a patchwork of skills gaps across America puts our economic security at risk,” the letter stated, adding, “America's College Promise is wholly in keeping with our adopted policy in that it pushes colleges to increase completion rates, align programs to workforce needs and encourage students to do the kinds of things that are associated with successful certificate and degree completion… without mandates or regulations.”

Many of the mayors are looking at the promise programs in their own backyards to help promote the issue. The Sacramento area is examining a promise program within its community college system.  

“We are part of this emerging coalition on both the president's proposal and the broader concept. Mayors across the country unanimously agreed a few years back that we shared a national goal. We should lead the world in college completion for Americans,” Christopher Cabaldon, mayor of West Sacramento, Calif., said.

Cabaldon remembers when attending a two-year institution in California was free for everyone. The mayors aren't crafting any proposals, but they are rallying companies and community activists to be supportive of the plan. They're on board with the proposal for a couple of reasons. 

“One is the economy. We work closely with employers and companies in our communities and regions that are uniformly telling us that we have to do something about the skill gap, and the only way for that to happen is for Americans to sharpen their skills and get credentials,” Cabaldon said. “Second is our citizens. One of the major contributions to rising economic inequality in urban areas is the education gap.”

They also are looking at free tuition plans like the Long Beach College Promise and the Kalamazoo Promise to help pave the way. But they're not only publicizing the established programs -- they're looking at this as models to build similar programs across the country, said Brown, of the Association of Community College Trustees. 

“This is a clear national need and national imperative and as in other domains, when Congress doesn't act, we sometimes have to,” Cabaldon said. He points to mayors stepping up to set climate change goals after the U.S. initially walked away from the Kyoto Protocol. They similarly took the initiative on moving forward with universal early childhood education after Obama made a series of “ambitious” proposals a couple of years ago. 

An Inside Higher Ed survey of community college presidents, conducted by Gallup, revealed 39 percent felt their legislatures would back Obama's free community college tuition plan with federal support. That number decreases to 13 percent without federal support. ​

“We're looking to bring in state political leaders on both sides of the aisle, because this must be a nonpartisan activity,” Brown said. “It's not a political enterprise. It's about making an intentional run at strengthening our economy.”

Kanter said she understands why some are pessimistic that the proposal will go through.

“People just don't have confidence in government being able to architect this,” she said, adding that many colleges are not back to where they were financially 10 years ago, and the political dysfunction in Washington hasn't helped. But that doesn't mean they should stop working for a better-educated country. 

Kanter expects that soon, by this summer, they will have coalesced around something that can get be accomplished. 

“The sooner the better… I'm excited about that. I don't want to sit around and waste my time, either. There seems to be momentum to do something, and we need a lot of people. It can't just be community colleges,” she said. 

Department of Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell said the proposal is “part of a down payment on a broad future” of K-14, during the recent Education Writers Association conference. 

“We believe that America's College Promise has already changed the nature of the debate,” he said. ”The fire that the president lit is not going out.”

Paul Fain contributed to this article.


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