President Obama’s January proposal to make community college tuition free to most students stirred up a fierce debate on the national level about the role the federal government should play in shepherding high school graduates into college, but higher education officials at home at the time were mostly mum on the topic.
That isn’t surprising, considering the fact that the Jindal administration has muzzled higher ups in his control who harp too much about the $700 million decrease in state funding to higher education since he took office. Now that college officials are facing even larger cuts, no one at home is optimistic enough to think that anything will ever come of the President’s plan.
Under present state leadership, Louisiana would rather give away college degrees to upper-middle class parents in the form of TOPS scholarships than to aid individuals who are not likely to contribute to their campaign war chests.
TOPS is given to graduates who took college prep courses in high school and maintain full-time status and a “C” average in college. That sounds equitable enough, but according to recent stats published in The Times-Picayune, average recipients come from families with annual incomes of between $70,000 and $99,000.
Obama and many civic-minded Republicans, such as Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, whose state has adopted a free community college program, believe government needs to do more to provide college access to all.
Because a well-educated workforce is needed in a technologically advanced economy, the President’s plan has merit. As long as it’s designed to help hardworking, future taxpayers get ahead and doesn’t waste too much money on freeloaders, some version of it will likely be adopted down the road. How long it will take to get a workable plan adopted is anybody’s guess.
Consider trends and history. The President’s proposal is based on the Tennessee Promise, a Republican supported program. Moreover, while it’s true that Republicans typically oppose federal attempts to dictate policy to states, one of the few issues that both parties more or less agree on is the importance of education.
The three primary obstacles to Obama’s free community college proposal are these: Public opposition to any nationalized program that appears to be “welfare”; paying for the estimated $60 billion over 10 years it would cost; and getting around the present ultra conservative Congress.
None of the three are permanent roadblocks. Voters can be convinced through public information about the advantages. Also the billions of federal dollars that are already dedicated to higher education each year could be redirected to community college tuition waivers.
Overcoming today’s conservative Congress is just a waiting game. Not long ago, former President Bush enjoyed some years of undivided government and had his way on issues important to the Republican Party. Then in 2008, the Democrats enjoyed two years of control of the political process and Obama was able to pass legislation providing health care for most Americans, a goal set by his Democratic predecessor, former President Bill Clinton.
Obama isn’t likely to see his proposal adopted during his remaining years in office, but history has shown that American voters eventually turn out the controlling party and support the opposition, giving that party a few years to usher in policies that have been percolating for years.
As of the end of January, details were just beginning to emerge about how such a sea change in community college funding could be accomplished. The original estimate of $60 million over a period of 10 years sounds like a gargantuan obstacle, but when compared to past amounts spent to help high school graduates go to college, that figure loses its power to dissuade. In 2011-’12 alone, the federal government gave $33.6 billion in Pell Grants to low-income students to pay for tuition, according to the Congressional Budget Office website.
Most Pell Grant recipients attend community colleges now, so much of the $340 million that would be spent in the next 10 years anyway could automatically roll into making community college open to all.
At the heart of the proposal is a belief that a college education should be guaranteed for anyone willing to put in the effort, no matter his or her financial condition. According to the US Department of Education website, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent this message via twitter Jan. 9: “Just as free K-12 education is an educational and civil right #FreeCommunityCollege should be as well.”
The primary difference between the haves and the have-nots today is the attainment of training that opens the door to better paid employment. Barriers to that road of economic success enlarge the underclass, drain federal coffers and stifle the nation’s overall economy.
Pew Research Center statistics show that 21.8 percent of people ages 25 to 32 who didn’t continue their education after graduating high school were living in poverty in 2012. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defined poverty in ’13 as having an annual income of $11,490 for one person.
That poverty percentage for high school graduates is considerably higher than the 14.5 percent of those with some college and 5.8 percent who those who graduated from college. College graduates in this age group also earn almost twice the annual salaries of high school graduates.
The primary challenge for future policy makers isn’t how to finance free community college tuition. The real challenge is how to structure the program so that people who enroll in college, actually stay there. Without proper controls, community college classrooms could bulge with students in September and shrink to a few in December.