Politics of Free

Advocates of free community college initiatives want to remain nonpartisan, and sometimes that means altering the rhetoric.

July 28, 2016

Free. Vouchers. Scholarships. Promise. Opportunity -- they're the buzzwords behind a campaign to significantly lower the cost of attending college and help more students leave those institutions debt-free. Many of the campaigns focus on making community college free, or at least free of tuition.

In the hopes of spreading this campaign nationally and starting local programs, many free community college advocates are changing the rhetoric to keep the issue nonpartisan. That's not always easy when Democratic presidential candidates -- and the nominee, Hillary Clinton -- spent the primary season highlighting the idea of making public higher education free, with the goal of creating a contrast with Donald Trump, who opposes the idea.

"Certain words in this educational conversation are lightning rods, and that's unfortunate," said Martha Kanter, a former under secretary of education under President Obama, who leads the College Promise Campaign, which advocates for free community college.

"Free means it's paid for someone, some way. We in the campaign, in our language, have tried to be very clear that if we talk about free community college or university, it means local institutions, local community, state or federal government, or business or philanthropy has funded the cost of opportunity."

The College Promise Campaign boasts a nonpartisan list of advisory board members including former Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer, a Republican, and Jill Biden. The Democratic Party's platform includes debt-free college, but there's no mention of a similar proposal -- even under a different name -- in the Republican Party's platform. But the free community college initiative still has plenty of Republican supporters.

"Sometimes we're parsing small words when we're parsing major policy decisions, and I don't think they're partisan issues," Geringer said. "But it became politicized with the advocacy of two Democratic candidates."

Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have spent the past year on the campaign trail pushing not only free community college but a version of tuition-free or debt-free college that would also extend to four-year colleges and universities. Republicans have criticized that message, and any support on the conservative right has been targeted at lowering or eliminating costs at the community college alone.

Randy Smith, the president of the Rural Community College Alliance, describes himself as a conservative Republican who believes in limited government. But he also believes in investing in community colleges. Smith sat on a panel hosted by the College Promise Campaign at the Republican National Convention last week. A similar panel is being held this week at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.

"There's not many of us out there, but I am an advocate for America's College Promise," said Smith, referring to President Obama's proposal for a national promise program. "If you want economic development in your state, you can't do it without investing in education."

Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, a nonprofit that endorses tuition-free reforms for community colleges and universities, said his organization was cognizant of the language issue and on a federal level they advocate for the federal government providing scholarships to each student attending in-state public colleges or universities.

"We could've easily called that a 'payment' or 'voucher,' but if we called it a voucher it would've caused all the Democrats to be opposed to free college," he said. "But the word 'scholarship' is a bipartisan or nonpartisan word. So we called it a scholarship, but not for that reason. In calling it a scholarship we were cognizant of the words that trigger particular reactions based upon a person's philosophical or political beliefs."

In Tennessee, for instance, talk of that much-heralded promise program sometimes doesn't include the word "free."

"That's a very conservative state, and you'd think the notion of free would be troublesome for the governor and getting it through the Legislature," Winograd said. "But they don't talk about free college in Tennessee. They talk about the Tennessee Promise, because the word 'promise' is very popular and because it's nonpartisan … and they call the people who earn the promise 'scholars,' so you see how those words work in a more conservative territory."

But Krissy DeAlejandro, the executive director of tnAchieves -- the mentoring and volunteering arm of the Tennessee Promise -- points out that using the word "free" is directed more at families and students as an incentive to encourage them to enroll in college.

"'Free' is a complicated word," she said during the panel. "It's the carrot. It's the spark that brings parents to the table."

Kanter estimates that there are about 180 promise programs across the country. While there are similarities, many of the requirements or details behind these programs are shaped by the politics of the area they're located.

So for instance, in Republican-led Tennessee, there are multiple requirements, like community service and mentor meetings, for students so "it's not just handed to" them -- students have to earn their scholarships, Winograd said.

"If you go to Oregon, blue state territory, they had this big argument in the Legislature as to what would be the requirement for free tuition, and they were unable to agree on things like mentoring or community service," he said.

Instead, Oregon settled on a $50 per semester copay that students contribute to tuition.

"That took care of the opposition in the liberal Oregon, who were worried about doing something free and having to do something to get free," Winograd said.

Kanter, of the College Promise Campaign, is putting together a definitive list that defines each program and will answer whether they're sustainable, increasing affordability and access for students. She said their early research has found some programs that claim to be promise initiatives but don't meet the campaign's definition.

"Everyone has a different definition of promise, and there's a lot of overlap between existing programs," she said. "From our perspective, we're in the early stages, and we need evidence to say this is the program that will produce the results we need for the country."

Geringer, the former Wyoming governor, who also sits on the Western Governors University board, said this idea of free without a degree isn't free at all, which is why any discussion of a promise program has to include reforms that increase persistence and lead to completion. He's pushed back on some of the rhetoric used to describe these programs on the College Promise Advisory Board, including the idea that higher education is a "guaranteed right."

"Don't talk to me about free. Talk to me about completion," he said. "Community colleges have an unacceptable low rate of completion, and if we don't deal with the lack of persistence to degree, free doesn't mean anything."

Paul Fain contributed to this report.


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