Home > CPS, ELPS, Faculty, Higher Education > President Obama’s Plan for Free Community Colleges: An Opinion Editorial by David Tandberg & Toby Park

President Obama’s Plan for Free Community Colleges: An Opinion Editorial by David Tandberg & Toby Park

January 21, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

President Obama’s Plan for Free Community Colleges:
An Opportunity We Should Not Let Pass Us By

David Tandberg & Toby Park
Center for Postsecondary Success, Florida State University

This past week President Obama unveiled what is widely recognized and the most expansive and innovative federal policy proposal for higher education since the original higher education act. We applaud the president for his boldness, his intended focus on low and middle income students, and his goal of increasing educational attainment rates overall and particularly for underrepresented students. This is exactly the type of expansive policy action we need in order to improve American higher education.

Under the President’s plan, through a partnership of the federal government and state governments, certain students (those who meet the plan’s requirements – more on that latter) interested in attending community colleges, would be able to do so tuition free. The president’s plan stands in stark contrast from much of the current higher education policy discussion, where many have argued that it’s a futile effort to fight for new dollars for higher education. Moreover, certain groups and individuals suggest that such a reinvestment would only amount to wasted resources with little impact on student outcomes. Instead of advocating for new resources, these individuals and entities have argued, instead, for stepwise (and minimal) improvements to our existing system. President Obama, by introducing broad policy reformation disagrees with this approach—and so do we.

Through his proposal, President Obama has provided a broad-based, ringing endorsement of higher education across the country, with a specific focus on community colleges. This is not to say that the President doesn’t believe colleges and universities could do a better job or that changes aren’t warranted–in fact, his proposal requires dramatic changes to state and institutional practice. However, at its heart, the proposal manifests significant belief in our country’s colleges and universities and for the first time in recent decades has proposed a new and sweeping policy intended to improve educational attainment in the United States. In that regard, President Obama has also attempted to reorient the county’s perspective on higher education, from an over emphasis on the private good of higher education (and with it the assumption that the student should foot the bill) to an emphasis on the public good of higher education (and with it the understanding that the public should bear a significant portion of the cost).

We should expect big impacts from President Obama’s plan. Indeed, relevant research indicates that we ought to expect significant student response if the plan becomes a reality. A recent study using Texas data found that a $1,000 reduction in community college tuition resulted in significant enrollment increases (including immediate enrollments following high school and later enrollments), transfer to 4-year institutions, and bachelor’s degree attainment. It seems reasonable to assume that with the complete elimination of tuition we could expect similar positive outcomes for community college students under President Obama’s plan. We expect that it would lead to more students attending college and earning degrees and worthwhile certificates. This, in and of itself, makes the President’s plan worth supporting.

This is not to say that the President’s plan is perfect. We have certain concerns and also have our own ideas for how the plan might be improved in ways that might better accomplish the President’s goals, and do so in a more efficient way.

Concerning Issues

First, several studies using advanced quasi-experimental techniques have shown a bachelor’s degree completion penalty associated with attending a community college rather than a 4-year institution. For certain students, attending a four-year institution might be the better choice and potentially President Obama’s plan may divert them to a community college.

Second, recent research has shown that enrolling in 15 credit hours (as opposed to the federally-defined full-time enrollment of 12 credits) significantly increases community college students’ chances of success (in terms of both transfer and degree completion). The President’s plan does not incentivize full-time enrollment. If we want students succeed, we should incentivize full-time enrollment and, in particular, the enrollment in 15 credit hours.

Third, President Obama’s plan provides aid irrespective of need. Although it is true that the typical enrollment portfolio of community colleges includes far more low-income students than the typical portfolio of four-year institutions, this is not the case for all students. Indeed, roughly 25% of community college students nationwide report family income greater than $100k. Indeed, we may find even more students with above average family incomes deciding to attend community colleges in order to take advantage of the free tuition offer. Therefore, under the President’s plan, we could expect that a significant number of students with the means to pay for their education attending community colleges tuition-free. The vast majority of these students would have attended college, even without the assistance. This is not the most efficient use of our public resources and raises concerns over equity.

Fourth, and finally, the plan does not require colleges to hold the line on fee increases. While there will be significant pressure from the federal and state governments to minimize tuition increases, due to their partnering in supporting the plan financially, there will be no such pressure to restrain increases in fees and other non-tuition expenses. Colleges may see fees as an easy way to access additional revenue. An example of this is the case of California, where public postsecondary education was ‘free’ (meaning no tuition) for many years. However, college and universities repeatedly raised fees to the point that costs and the increases become quite significant.

Improving the Plan

The fact that the President has put such a bold proposal on the table means that a window of opportunity has been opened and, with some improvements to the plan, broad-based higher education policy reform may now be possible. In that light, we make the following suggestions for ways we think President Obama’s proposal might be improved:

1. Require students to enroll in 15 credit hours to receive the full award.

Requiring 15 credit hours per semester to receive complete tuition coverage makes complete sense. Most baccalaureate degrees require 120 credit hours. Dividing this up over four years requires enrolling in 15 credits each fall and spring semester. By incentivizing students to enroll in 15 credit hours we are also incentivizing students to complete baccalaureate degrees. Every additional semester a student remains enrolled, particularly at part-time levels increase time to degree, additional cost (in terms of both credit hours and deferred earnings, not to mention the cost the state and federal government), and decreases the likelihood that a student will finish their degree. One potential drawback to this approach is failing to support a population of students who need to work in order to support their families. Thus, we also propose providing half-funding to students who enroll in at least 6 credit hours giving students with additional obligations the ability to work full-time and attend part-time and receive at least 50% tuition support. In this way, by tying the full tuition-free education to enrolling full-time we are merely incentivizing enrolling in 15 credits, we are not requiring it—giving the students who need to work the option to do so, and state and federal grants and loans will still be available to them.

2. Students pay what they can and state and federal governments cover the rest.

We whole-heartedly agree that addressing the cost of higher education is an important part of increasing our country’s educational attainment rate. Likewise, focusing our efforts on low-income students is also critical to that goal. Which is why we feel that this proposal could be improved by focusing to an even greater extent on those who have financial need. One way to do this is to have each student pay no more than what they can. This is not a new idea. When he was governor of Pennsylvania, Governor Ed Rendell proposed such a plan and called it the Tuition Relief Act. Under his plan each student would pay what amounted to their “Expected Family Contribution” (EFC). The EFC is a federally calculated number based on the information students and their families submit as part of their application for Federal Financial Aid and is an estimate of what a family can reasonably be expected to contribute to a student’s college education. Under this plan, if a student has a zero EFC then tuition would be covered entirely by the federal and state sources as outlined in President Obama’s plan. If the student had an EFC of $1,000 then the student would be required to pay no more than $1,000 in tuition and the state and federal governments would pick up the rest, and so on. This way those who need the most assistance receive the most, and those who need little or no assistance receive little or no assistance.

3. Use savings from only covering full-time students at 100%, and by covering only up to a student’s EFC, to expand the program into public four year colleges and universities

By reducing the total funding awarded through the program through EFC indexing and by only covering full-time students at 100%, Obama’s plan has the potential to be extended to public four year colleges in universities. This would alleviate any potential diversion effect of the policy by giving students with the interests and credentials to attend a four-year university the option to do so. Indeed, students could receive the amount in aid equal to what they would have received had they attended a community college. The total amount awarded wouldn’t change, only the location where the student attends.

4. Require that institutions not increase fees beyond the growth in median personal income

In order to prevent institutions from exploiting the policy, safeguards are needed to ensure that fees are not raised to unreasonable and potentially exploitative levels. Specifically, fees and other non-tuition required expenses should be held at rates that do not exceed the state growth in median personal income. One way to ensure this is by tightly coupling state oversight of tuition and fees in order to ensure individual campuses are remaining compliant in their charges. If colleges hold the line on tuition and fee increases, states will be obligated ensure that colleges receive the financial support necessary to properly serve and educate their students.

Concluding Thoughts

For the first time in decades, we have a president affirming his commitment to American higher education through a sweeping policy proposal aimed at improving student access and outcomes at our nation’s colleges and universities. We shouldn’t let this opportunity pass us by. With some revisions, we believe the President’s plan would forever change the face of degree attainment in America and, once again, make the United States the worldwide envy of educating its citizens and assembling a 21st century workforce.

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