I am writing this just before the annual State of the Union address so I am admittedly lacking in details, but I want to start a conversation on the proposal to provide free community college education for everyone. This proposal was announced two weeks ago and has drawn a mixed reaction. The proposal is this: community college tuition shall be free to all who “make steady progress toward completing their program”(whitehouse.gov). Students would be required to attend at least half time and maintain a 2.5 GPA. The federal government would fund this program with $60 billion over the next ten years and states that opt in would bear 25 percent of the cost.
This proposal would benefit low-income students who are already taking advantage of Pell grants, as well as all who want to complete the first two years of a college education. In essence, this would be an extension of government funded K-12 education and would remove the cost barrier that prevents many students from continuing their education. The benefit would apply to vocational and certificate programs as well as those programs that prepare students to transfer to a four-year college or university. The national government proposal is modeled after a program launching this fall in Tennessee.
This proposal would cost an estimated $60 billion with the federal government supplying 75 percent of the money and states covering the remainder. While details are light at this point, the money is expected to come from higher taxes and eliminating some tax breaks, including the tax-free status of 529 college savings plans. Without the tax-free growth benefit such college savings plans would likely disappear as parents would seek other investment vehicles.
This proposal has set off bells and sirens in my head. Let me be clear, I am a huge proponent of higher education at any level and would love to have it be accessible to all, but there are a lot of unanswered questions. Here are my top questions, and I invite you to add your own (or answer mine):
- If tuition is covered, how is a student going to pay for room and board, or will that be covered as well?
- If every high school graduate enrolls in community college, who funds the expansion of the community college infrastructure, such as buildings? It will put a burden on the state to keep up with the new incoming students.
- Following on the question above, if everyone enrolls in community college because it is free, who is left to complete their first two years at public and private universities? Will these now also become two-year universities for juniors and seniors? If not, will they restructure their curriculum to favor those students that completed their first two years as a resident as opposed to being a transfer student?
- What will be the opportunities for those newly minted community college graduates who want to complete a higher degree? Will they be limited because of cost or other factors?
- Will cash-strapped states want to participate in this program? If so, will that take money from the already shrinking pool available to four-year state institutions?
- Will we create pockets of states that offer free community college tuition versus those that don’t? Residency requirements suddenly become a moot point.
I have a lot more questions, but I am hoping that at least some of them will be answered in the days to come. From the initial proposal, it does not seem well thought out in terms of economics. But the overarching question that I don’t think we are asking is: what do we value about a community college education? Do we value it as a vocational education program or as a gateway to a full university education? Do we value it as a means to teach functional, applied skills, or for teaching higher thinking and reasoning skills in preparation for a university education? How do we value our community colleges?
These are some of my questions and I would love to hear from you. What questions or answers do you have? Perhaps together we can figure this out.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.