President Obama Proposes Free Community College

The key phrase here is, “…for those who work for it.” And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Today, the President unveiled a new proposal: Make two years of community college free for responsible students across America.

In our growing global economy, Americans need to have more knowledge and more skills to compete — by 2020, an estimated 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree, and 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree. Students should be able to get the knowledge and the skills they need without taking on decades’ worth of student debt.

Currently, in Texas, 1/3 of university students and 1/2 of community college students are deemed unprepared for college once they graduate from high school. If community college students work hard, earn a 2.5 GPA, attend at least half-time, students could save a whole bunch, while preparing themselves for university-level courses.

Is there a catch? According to the White House:

The requirements:

  • What students have to do: Students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program.
  • What community colleges have to do: Community colleges will be expected to offer programs that are either 1) academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities, or 2) occupational training programs with high graduation rates and lead to in-demand degrees and certificates. Community colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.
  • What the federal government has to do: Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. Participating states will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.

So, there are a couple of catches. The first one is that the participating colleges need to adopt institutional reforms to improve student outcomes. That said, and in a state like Texas, the colleges would need to put in some effort to help prepare students before they get into their transferable courses–tutoring programs, convenient course time availability for working students, proactive academic advising, etc. At least, that’s my thinking. It seems politicians of either party are so far off the mark when putting the onus on colleges to get students college-ready, and do little to fund K-12, which is where these students should be getting college-ready. There are some screwed-up priorities when it comes to education in Texas.

The second catch is that the Feds pay for 3/4 and the states pay the remaining funds to eliminate tuition. How that works in Texas, whose community colleges are locally controlled by elected boards, is still to be seen. Perhaps it’s through state financial aid. Still, states much choose to participate and with Texas ever-slipping backwards, and as some of my college professor friends have said, “I won’t hold my breath.”

Tech and Workforce Programs

Obviously, a good chunk of this would go to folks wanting to earn career certificates in tech and workforce programs. Many of these programs exist according to community needs, so, there will be a substantial benefit and return on the investment if students immediately fill jobs and become contributing members of the economy. Still, the state must choose to participate.

Something to consider is that many of these programs are too small–not enough seats and plenty of competition to enter the programs. Here in Texas, there is a huge nursing shortage. Back in 2005, my friend and former Express-News columnist Carlos Guerra wrote about the nursing shortage.

“Texas needs 34,000 more registered nurses to catch up to the national average…”

And that was in 2005. Some progress has been made, but if there is lack of support to grow these programs, by 2020 the shortage could number 70,000.

Obviously, there is much to think about. Certainly demand for all kinds of programs would increase with this kind of opportunity, but without available seats and investment from community college districts and other state funding beyond the tuition break, meeting employment needs would continue to be a challenge.

All of this said, anything that gives the next generation a break from tuition costs and student loans would be welcome.

 

 

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