Summary: Though one might argue scarce funds should go first to low income students, President Obama’s offer to make community college free of tuition could also stem the slide out of the middle class for others. Costs of living beyond tuition while in school also complicate the route to college success.
President Obama created a media stir recently, and possibly struck a bit of fear into the populist averse ranks of Republicans, with his proposal to make the two years of community college free to the nation’s high school graduates. According to Obama, the opportunity would be open to “whoever is willing to work for it.” Early details specify a 2.5 grade point average once on campus, part or full time, and that progress be made toward a degree or certification.
The merits of the program aside, it is tempting to speculate on the politics upon which the initiative is based. Does Obama spy a political opportunity to frame a debate that will resonate well into the 2016 campaign, even while knowing the opposition Congress will balk?
At a price tag estimated at $60 billion over 10 years in the early calculations, what do we get besides divergent political camps, even it will be entertaining to see how Republicans doublespeak their resistance?
Though many Republicans squawked at the price tag, as I troll the internet, the clamor is more subdued than on other topics, perhaps because states and local municipalities with Republican flavor have been experimenting with related programs. Tennessee has an ongoing program for free tuition to community college, begun under the auspices of Republican office holders. Ohio under Gov. John Kasich, also a Republican, has been considering a variation on such a plan. Similar discussions in Oregon have originated in the traditionally conservative voices of rural areas impacted by the need to retrain lumber mill and other workers left jobless by the decline of extractive industries. Thus in pragmatic locales closer to the voters than Washington, D.C., the economic turmoil visited by jobs moving overseas and other disruptions such as in the lumber industry ferment solutions while Congress dithers.
Washington State’s Running Start program pays community college tuition for those who have proven themselves academically while the students are still in high school, and the College Bound Scholar program addresses the tuition needs specifically of low income students after they have graduated from high school, as I have discussed in recent posts.
Will the states lead the feds out of the wilderness?
While we focus on the growing number of low income students and the consequences in our classrooms, as well we should, the growing number of low income students in our schools are sons and daughters of wage earners who have lost their jobs and in the process descended the economic ladder. For the first time in fifty years, a majority of students in our public schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, a standard measure of poverty. Obama acknowledged this reality by pairing his comments on free community college, aimed at the young adult population coming out of high school, with announcement of a separate initiative designed to upgrade adult skills training. Unstated but implicit is the reality that much of this skills training would land in community colleges, where presumably the parents of the young adult population might themselves make use of the free tuition program. Also unstated in the roll out is that previous versions of this tech fund have basically been moribund on arrival in Congress.
The simplicity in educational and hence economic access for a broad swath of the populace packs a hopeful punch where more complex offerings might get lost in the details. It offers something to the middle class wage earner who needs to upgrade training in order to maintain place as well as to the lower income person striving to rise as well as to the apprehensive high school student beginning to figure out that Mom and/or Dad ain’t gonna provide forever.
My first impulse on hearing the Obama proposal was to think that scarce resources should go where they are most needed, that is, to lower income folk. But in the current economy middle class folk who don’t upgrade are in danger of stepping on the down escalator to low income status. Moreover, if the proposal has any chance of engaging the current Republican majority, it has to be with the tag “middle class” in the headline.
Jonathan Alter writing in the Daily Beast makes the point that the Obama proposal is well in line with the philosophy of the GI Bills of the post Second World War era. The initial impulse was bipartisan gratitude for the work of soldiers in wartime, but the program proved to be an effective economic stimulus and helped fuel growth in the postwar era. Similarly, the establishment of land grant colleges largely in the west by none other than Abraham Lincoln (Republican) provided for the training of workers in the extractive skills of the time. All such initiatives benefited from steady bipartisan steerage.
The issue is more complicated than it seems on first blush. For example, a significant percentage of current community college students have much if not all of their tuition already paid by Pell Grants and other financial aid programs. Will the President’s program supplement or replace these monies, or be administered in addition to them? This is a critical question, because students still must eat and put a roof over their heads, manage transport and buy books while attending college. Of those students who dropped out of community college, approximately 80% report they did so for financial reasons such as the cost of living expenses for themselves and/or family, or more generally because the cost of college was simply too much.
By contrast, only 20% of these dropouts reported academic difficulties as the root cause, though clearly academic readiness is an issue for many community college students.
To the point, the burden of supporting oneself and the purchase of books and other academic materials are often the Achilles heel of programs that pay tuition. Beneficiaries still drop out despite the financial assistance because the total cost cuts too close to the bone, and lower income families, already struggling to make ends meet, simply do not have the wherewithal to cover the margin. 38% of dropouts return but not all of these complete their original intentions. The aim of public policy isn’t to create a total free ride, but to promote access and successful completion, and not give something insufficient and blame the kids when it doesn’t work out. As a matter of public policy, we need them to be successful.
Alter, again in the same Daily Beast post just cited, reminds me of a community college advisory program I once profiled through which counselors cum parent surrogates aggressively interact with at risk college students to provide support — emotional, tutoring, and financial — as needed. As Alter observes, in an altogether too common scenario, “by the time the college learns the student is struggling, he or she has long since dropped out.” Any community college access program needs to include an advisory component, or risk program mediocrity if not outright failure.
From the standpoint of the lower or marginally middle income student facing the next level beyond high school, the financial and existential realities can be daunting. Costs of community college continue to rise, while good jobs go begging for takers.
Corporate leaders and politicians urge action but seem not to recognize the answer lies in substantial public investment which they are loathe themselves to promote. Now we have the President rolling out a challenge.
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