Pushing for Free

After taking a backseat to debate over free tuition at four-year public colleges, free community college advocates see chance to build momentum.

July 28, 2016

PHILADELPHIA -- While tuition-free and debt-free public college plans were debated vociferously in the Democratic primary, an older proposal for affordable higher ed receded into the background. But advocates for free community college at the Democratic National Convention don’t believe the idea has suffered from the shifting spotlight.

Instead, they say the wider discussion about college affordability will aid the push for free tuition at two-year programs.

President Obama gave his endorsement to the idea in January 2015 and announced America’s College Promise, a federal matching grant program to spur the development of free community college across the country. So far, Tennessee -- the inspiration for the president’s plan -- and a number of other states or local communities (many more of the latter) have put in place some version of free community college. The Democratic platform approved Monday in Philadelphia includes a call for free community college, an exciting if symbolic victory for advocates eager to push for more progress on the issue.

As organizers shift from the primary campaign to the general election and planning beyond November, some conversations are focused on how they can take strategies back to the local and state levels. Mary Cathryn Ricker, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the key for the group is helping members maintain that momentum in their local communities.

“We actually want to take this platform and we want it to come off the page,” she said. “That’s the way we’re going to have an impact -- by tapping into the enthusiasm, tapping into the optimism people are having around this week and around that language, and then directing people into what concrete work looks like when they get home.”

Outside of Tennessee, Minnesota and Oregon have adopted free community college programs. In other states, like Michigan, advocates stymied at the state level are pushing for wins on a smaller scale.

Kalamazoo Promise launched in 2005, an initiative backed by anonymous donations to send graduates of local public schools to dozens of two- and four-year institutions in Michigan for free. In Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan this year has announced the Detroit Promise Zone, a free two-year-college plan modeled on the Kalamazoo program.

At the state level, AFT Michigan President David Hecker said the union is doing everything it can to elect a governor and legislators who would increase support for higher education. But the current Legislature has cut rather than expanded funding for colleges and universities in recent years.

“On a local level, we're tremendous supporters of Mayor Duggan and we support candidates for office at the local level who would be interested in doing the kinds of things that [he] has done and that the community in Kalamazoo has done,” he said.

Sam Clovis, national co-chair and policy director for the Donald Trump campaign, has panned the idea of free community college as unnecessary. The goal also has its critics on the left, who say the focus on community college doesn’t go far enough.

Melissa Byrne, a former Sanders campaign staffer who has organized on free college for several years, said the goal of free two-year college doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s short-sighted and problematic to anchor a whole program around free community college, because we all know children of elites aren't going to community college,” Byrne said.

Achieving free four-year public college would include community colleges, she said, but making only community college free would restrict the choices of low-income students. And research shows first-generation college students do well at four-year programs when they receive adequate support, Byrne said.

For many leaders of two-year programs, community college completion is a springboard to a four-year degree. The Community College of Philadelphia has agreements in place for dual admissions transfer partnerships with 12 area four-year programs, including Temple and Saint Joseph’s Universities. CCP President Donald Generals said the attention given to community colleges by President Obama’s announcement has only helped his college develop further partnerships in the area.

“President Obama really put the spotlight on community colleges,” he said. “Business and industry is more willing to work with us. Four-year colleges are more willing to work with us.”

Generals’s campus hosted an event this week to celebrate the inclusion of free community college in the Democratic platform and discuss how higher ed leaders can build more momentum behind the idea.

Although the public discussion on college affordability has for months focused on four-year programs, community colleges are where movement continues to happen, said Maggie Thompson, executive director of Generation Progress Action.

“Free community college is where we’re chiseling away at this program of college affordability,” she said. “As more of these programs pop up, more communities are going to be recognizing the value of them.”

Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, said free community college is being pursued at a grassroots level because there hasn’t been much of a federal policy framework to guide that work. Stout sits on the College Promise Advisory Board and said President Obama’s announcement last year accelerated conversations between local community colleges, donors and policy makers.

“I’m optimistic because there is such energy around the conversation about college affordability,” she said.


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