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President Obama’s Free Community College Tuition Proposal


In a U.S. News & World Report articleRamin Sedehi discusses President Obama's proposal for free community college tuition, and potential funding. Read below for Mr. Sedehi's full Q&A.

How likely is it that the plan will become a reality? 

Given the current mood in Washington, the potential for a proposal of such magnitude becoming reality is low. As the proposal is both a federal action to provide 75 percent of the funding and a state’s decision to provide the remaining 25 percent, it faces hurdles in both Washington and many states. The portion states would have to provide will most likely come from existing higher education funding, creating anxiety among state universities as to the implications for their funding, and perhaps leading to opposition from the education sector itself. It is also likely that less-selective private colleges and universities may see an enrollment drop given that that the first two years of schooling could be done for free at a community college. This proposal will likely generate interesting bedfellows. 

There is also reflection from Europe, where free education has been increasingly changing toward the expectation of some tuition from students, and thus this proposal is going the opposite direction. The expectation that students should be responsible for part of the tuition positively impacting participation and engagement has merit, thus creating additional obstacles for lawmakers. 

The proposal, however, has the potential to create a dialog on the merits of higher education as a public or private good and the importance of community colleges in the spectrum of higher education providers. This dialogue is as important as any eventual legislation. To what extent the dialogue becomes a positive medium for discussion of the goals of public higher education, which are to enable the individual to be a productive member of society and an engaged and informed citizen, remain to be seen. 

Who will benefit most from it?

Details of the proposal are vague at the moment. It is my understanding that the primary focus is on students who attend at least half time and earn a minimum GPA of 2.5. The student must be making progress toward completing an academic program leading to transfer to a four-year public university or job training programs with high graduation rates in high-demand fields. A great deal can be read into this, but presumably a typical student who works toward a four-year degree and spends the first two years in a community college would be eligible, as would individuals working on two-year degrees and certifications.

How the funding will be applied is currently vague. Will it be the last dollar after the individual has obtained Pell grants, and the funding will fill in the student portion; or will it include room and board (keeping in mind that most community college students commute) and other college-related costs; or ...

Depending on the details, if the program focuses on students who need extra assistance, it may lead to increased attendance by removing the financial barrier for those students. As noted above, students who may not have thought about attending community college as a low-cost alternative to the first two years of a four-year degree may also consider attending community college under this proposal and save money toward their last two years. This begs the question: will the community college system have the capacity to handle the additional enrollments? 

What students should know now

I am not sure there is enough detail or a realistic time frame to prompt action on the part of students, other than awareness of the proposal and engagement in the conversations, both pro and con. It is important to note that however the final proposal and legislation take shape, students will be expected to work toward an objective in their education—be it a four-year degree or job-related training certificates—in order to justify the public funding. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, position, or policy of Berkeley Research Group, LLC or its other employees and affiliates.