Free Community College Catches On

Obama's plan lives on, with newly proposed federal legislation. But the real action is happening in states and cities, most notably with Oregon following Tennessee's lead with a statewide version.

July 9, 2015
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Oregon's state capitol

President Obama’s push for free community college has yet to be shunted aside by the debt-free college ideas his aspiring Democratic successors are talking up.

Oregon now is poised to follow Tennessee as the second state with a plan on the books to provide free two-year college. And Democrats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives introduced bills Wednesday that seek to make Obama’s federal proposal a reality. The proposed legislation lacks any Republican support, however, so the bills are unlikely to go anywhere.

Yet the Oregon Promise, which the Legislature passed last week and which Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, is expected to sign, is an indication that the concept of free community college has some momentum.

Mark Hass, a Democratic state senator in Oregon, proposed the legislation. It’s a last-dollar plan, which means the state will spend $10 million a year to fill in the tuition gaps that state and federal aid don’t cover.

However, all eligible students will receive a minimum grant of $1,000 -- even if their tuition fees are covered by aid. And after the grant is applied to tuition, any leftover Oregon Promise dollars can be used for transportation, books and other expenses, said officials with the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission. The grant could also free up federal aid that students could use for other expenses. Click here for a fact sheet about the plan. (Note: This paragraph has been changed from an earlier version to incorporate new information from the commission.)

Oregon also will spend a new $7 million on related student success and completion programs, which higher education leaders in the state called a much-needed and welcome move. The new money is part of a large funding boost for higher education in Oregon.

In his written testimony about the free community college bill, Hass argued that making community college free is a “bold, visionary” idea. It would help the 70,000 people in the state who are between the ages of 18 and 24 and have no job or higher education, he said, by better enabling them to enter the workforce.

The legislation could also direct more federal aid to the state, said Hass, by increasing community college enrollment and student applications for financial aid.

“We like to study things in Oregon. And for the last two years, we have been studying how to make this happen here,” Hass said. “Under the Obama administration, funding for Pell Grants has doubled. It would be smart for Oregon to take advantage of those dollars.”

The White House has said it wants to encourage a broad shift in the way state and local lawmakers, business leaders and the general public view community college. Given increasing demand for workers with at least a certificate or associate degree, the administration’s goal is for public funding to cover a K-14 education that is open to all.

“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,” Martha Kanter, a professor of higher education at New York University and former U.S. under secretary of education, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed a couple months ago. “It's always been called a ‘promise,’ but for too many people the promise was not delivered.”

The Obama plan, which is dubbed America’s College Promise, has its critics. Some don’t like the strings that would come with the money. For example, the proposal includes unspecified federal performance indicators and a requirement that colleges adopt “evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.”

To conservatives, the free community college program looks like a federal takeover of the two-year sector.

Bill Haslam, Tennessee’s Republican governor, who played a big role in creating the Tennessee Promise, has argued that state programs are a better way to go than a federal free community college plan. Backing that call has been Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who leads the Senate’s education committee.

But the Obama administration hasn’t let up at the state and local level, either. Kanter has helped lead what observers say is an administration-backed “full court press” to build support for a broad range of free community college plans.

Results are starting to emerge. The Community College of Philadelphia and Harper College, a two-year institution located in Illinois, recently announced tuition-free plans, joining one the City Colleges of Chicago created last year, which the White House has touted.

Likewise, Minnesota began a pilot program for free technical college, and Washington, D.C., is mulling a free community college plan. But Oregon is the first state to follow Tennessee by jumping in with a broad statewide program.

“It’s certainly a great opportunity for Oregon to help lead the way,” said Ben Cannon, executive director of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

The big kahuna would be California and its 112 community colleges, which enroll 2.1 million students. Filling in the gap between state and federal aid also wouldn’t be a huge stretch in California, which is flush with tax revenue. And community college tuition in the state has long been relatively inexpensive.

Sources said conversations have occurred with California lawmakers and higher education officials about a free community college plan. But nothing has emerged yet.

New Features

Oregon’s legislation would cap spending on the free community college subsidy at $10 million a year. In contrast, Tennessee created a $360 million endowment to pay for the $34 million estimated annual cost of its plan, and to protect that stream of money from the vicissitudes of economic downturns and new lawmakers.

The Oregon plan won’t cover student demand, as lawmakers and community college officials acknowledge. But the bill includes features to cope with the shortfall, which have won praise from higher education experts.

The minimum $1,000 grant for each qualifying student, which the state’s Office of Student Access and Completion will administer, helps solve the problem of a free tuition plan -- and additional state funding -- that could benefit wealthier students rather than the neediest ones, who are more likely to qualify for Pell Grants and other aid.

“For a student who gets the full Pell, they’ll also get some money left over for books and living expenses," said Andrea Henderson, executive director of the Oregon Community College Association.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, testified before the Oregon Legislature in February.

"This bill will benefit low- and moderate-income students in real and measurable ways -- it will increase their rates of enrollment in college, boost their persistence and may also increase their graduation rates," she said in her prepared statement. "Rigorous studies have shown that reducing the cost of community college by even $1,000 a year results in substantial increases across the board."

As with the Tennessee Promise and Obama’s proposal, Oregon's plan includes several eligibility requirements for students. They must be residents of the state for a year, hold a high school diploma or its equivalent, and have earned a high-school grade point average of at least 2.5.

Recipients of the grant must enroll in degree, transfer or career academic tracks at an Oregon community college within six months of graduating from high school. They can’t have earned more than 90 college credits, and must maintain a 2.5 GPA to remain eligible.

Students will be required to kick in a $50 per-term “co-pay.” The new state grants will cover the price of full-time, full-year community college tuition, which is about $4,900, minus whatever state and federal aid is received -- with the minimum grant being $1,000.

Henderson said community college leaders had “grave concerns” about early versions of the free community college plan that began circulating in the statehouse two years ago. She said the first ideas to emerge were mandates for the state's already underfunded community colleges to cut tuition.

Since then both the proposal and the state funding situation have improved, with Oregon’s community colleges receiving a 22 percent increase in their state contribution this biennium. Henderson said one key change in the bill is that the grant will be administered as part of the financial aid process rather than as a tuition discount.

“The colleges aren’t on the hook for a waiver,” she said.

Another big selling point for the bill is the accompanying $7 million Oregon ponied up to help recipients get to graduation. That money could go toward student coaching and counseling, said Cannon, as well as to college readiness programs in K-12 schools. (The funding has yet to be allocated, and the commission must propose to the Legislature how to spend it.) The state also will spend a new $1.5 million on college advising.

Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission will have flexibility under the free community college bill to direct money toward priority students.

“We’re unlikely to be able to serve the entire state,” Cannon said. But being able to target the money to certain high schools will help the commission ensure that it is helping a “cross section of Oregon,” including rural and urban districts and students that need the most help.

The Federal Version

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress on Wednesday introduced legislation based on President Obama’s free community college proposal.

In unveiling the bill, which stands little chance of passing the Republican-controlled Congress, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said it would “build on the momentum we’re seeing across the country and across the political spectrum with local and state efforts to reduce the cost of community colleges and expand college affordability.”

Duncan cited Minnesota, Oregon, Harper College and the Community College of Philadelphia as examples of a “growing movement.”

As Obama proposed, the Congressional bill would create a matching grant where the feds would kick in $3 for every $1 participating states spend toward waiving community college tuition and fees for eligible students. It would a first-dollar program, meaning that tuition and fees would be waived before other forms of state and federal aid are applied.

The free community college legislation would cost $90 billion over the next decade, an increase from the $60 billion price tag the administration cited earlier this year.

Part of the legislation’s estimated $90 billion cost includes a proposal for a new $10 billion federal grant program for historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. Under the bill, the federal government would pay the first two years of tuition and fees of low-income students who attend minority-serving institutions that enroll large numbers of low-income students.

The House version has 61 co-sponsors, all Democrats, while the Senate version has 10 Democratic co-sponsors.

“We strongly support structuring this program to support low-income Pell Grant students by preserving the availability of the award for full cost of attendance. This will allow students to borrow less, and potentially persist at a faster rate,” said Noah Brown, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees, in a written statement. “Additionally, we support requirements that ensure states continue to invest in higher education.”

-- Michael Stratford contributed to this article.


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