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Praise, Skepticism Greet Obama’s Community College Plan

President Barack Obama
Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) (UPI file photo/Bill Greenblatt)

President Barack Obama’s proposal to provide free community college tuition for some students who meet certain standards won praise from some educators, but skeptics wondered whether it was the best way for tax dollars to be spent on education.

Obama announced the proposal Friday during a visit to a community college in Knoxville, Tenn., a state with a plan that is similar to what the president is expected to announce in greater detail in his State of the Union address later this month.

In a video preview released Thursday night, Obama said education is a key to success in the 21st century, and he wanted to give more people access to that training, making it “free for everybody who’s willing to work for it.”

In Knoxville, he told an audience at Pellissippi Community College that the United States once led the world in education, and now it has to take up that mantle again.

“America thrived in the 20th century in large part because we made high school the norm,” Obama said, “and then we sent a generation to college on the GI Bill.”

His plan, he added, is a simple transaction.

“There are no free rides in America,” he said.  “You would have to earn it. Students would have to do their part by keeping their grades up. Colleges would have to do their part by offering high-quality academics and helping students actually graduate. States would have to do their part, too. 

“This isn’t a blank check. It’s not a free lunch. But for those willing to do the work, and for states and local communities that want to be a part of this, it can be a game-changer.”

Dennis Michaelis, the interim chancellor of St. Louis Community College, said in an interview that the proposal would help more than what most people think of as the traditional college-age student.

“Many times,” he said, “when we use the word student, we think about 17, 18-year olds, but there are great numbers of students all across the nation who have come to community colleges in their late 20s, 30s, even 40s and 50s. They have been in the workplace,  and they want to increase their skills so they have better job opportunities. I think this could be a move in that direction.”

Karen Hunter Anderson, executive director of the Illinois Community College Board, also supported the president's plan. "I applaud the president’s proposal for recognizing the important role that community colleges play in our state’s higher education system and in economic development and workforce education," she said.

But James Shuls, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says no one should be fooled into thinking that the education promised by the Obama plan would be truly free.

“It's always admirable to do those types of things,” he said in an interview. “But we forget sometimes that there are tradeoffs. It's not free community college. The college professors aren't donating their labor. Somebody has to pay for it.

“So it comes out of taxes. It's coming from somewhere else, or we're taking more in taxes. That's just the bottom line. So we really have to look at this and figure out what are the tradeoffs.”

America’s College Promise

The Obama proposal, titled “America’s College Promise,” is designed to help students “earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree and earn skills needed in the workforce at no cost,” according to a fact sheet released by the White House.

“Restructuring the community college experience, coupled with free tuition, can lead to gains in student enrollment, persistence, and completion transfer, and employment,” the fact sheet said. 

Under the plan, students would have to stay on track to graduate, and colleges would have to strengthen their program and increase their graduation rate. States would also be required to invest more money in higher education and training.

'If all states participate, an estimated 9 million students could benefit. A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.'

A White House spokesman said Friday that the plan would cost the federal government about $60 billion over 10 years.  States that join the effort would need to pay one-quarter of the cost.

While in Tennessee, the president also proposed a new American Technical Training Fund, designed to offer more programs to provide employers with well-trained workers.

In an effort to show bipartisan support, Obama was accompanied on his trip to Tennessee by that state’s Republican senators, Lamar Alexander – a former secretary of education – and Bob Corker.

But aboard Air Force One en route to Tennessee, Corker said he wasn’t sure that a federal program was the best way to expand the goals of the plan in his home state.

“You’re always better off letting states mimic each other," he said.

The Obama plan won praise from Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who said in a statement:

“President Obama’s proposal would give motivated students a path to receiving a solid educational foundation without the debt. Community colleges provide a springboard for students who wish to continue their education and quality job training programs to help students find good paying jobs. 

“Community colleges have always been a more affordable, higher quality alternative to for-profit colleges and I support the president’s effort to promote their value.”

Rabbits, hats and diplomas

Shuls, at UMSL, said that while a community college education may be more affordable, it still costs something, and those costs have to be met one way or the other.

James Shuls
Credit University of Missouri-St. Louis
James Shuls

“If we start incentivizing people to go more to community colleges,” he said, “well then maybe fewer students go to the universities. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe it's not. But that is likely to happen.

“We might incentivize more students to go, but there are some students who are definitely not going to go to community colleges. So essentially what you're doing is creating a wealth transfer, where you're subsidizing more students going to community college at the expense of the students who decide not to go to community college. It's maybe a noble proposal, but it is not free community college. Somebody has to pay.”

Too often, he said, the word “free” is misleading.

“To simply say we're going to give away free community college sounds better than it actually is,” Shuls said. “You're not pulling community college out of a hat,  like a rabbit that a magician's pulling out. Somebody's paying for it.”

Shuls added that if tax money is going to be used to allow more students to pursue higher education, it should go to those students and not to the institutions.

“If we really have the money to spend,” he said, “rather than say you can use the money to go to community college, why not give each student a voucher to use wherever they want? Instead of subsidizing the universities directly or the community colleges directly, you give the student and let them direct the funds.

“Maybe it goes to a community college, maybe it's a state university like UMSL or Missouri Southern. Maybe it's a private institution, like Fontbonne or Washington University. So if we really have the funds, why is directing all the money to community college the best method? I don't know that it is.”

But Michaelis says Missouri already has a program similar to what the president has proposed, the A+ programthat provides college scholarship money to students who perform well at designated high schools.

Dennis Michaelis
Credit St. Louis Community College
Dennis Michaelis

“Students who are coming out of high school and meet certain requirements, have attendance levels and meet certain grade averages, that kind of thing, have access to free tuition,” Michaelis said, adding:

“I hate to use the word free, because it's something they earn as a result of taking care of business when they're in school. Missouri does have a leg up on it, I believe, with the A-Plus program, and it would be a great supplemental thing to moving us further in that direction.”

Anderson also noted that Illinois has something similar. 

"Illinois has been moving in this direction in several of our community college districts," she said. "Some community college districts, including Chicago, have or will implement 'Promise’ programs, designed to cover the tuition costs of a community college education for eligible students in their districts. The cost for Chicago Star Scholarship alone is estimated at $2 million for the first year. To fully implement a tuition-free program for the approximately 340,000 Illinois community college students in credit programs would require a significant investment in state funds."

If the president’s plan becomes law – and Michaelis acknowledged it faces a long road – the result would be a reaffirmation of an approach that the United States began decades ago.

“Of course, community colleges really are an American invention,” he said, “where so many students have the opportunity to access higher education, either as an entry point to going to a university, and have the first two years of general education courses, by the time they get ready to transfer, or a two-year work skills, workforce development program for a specific job skill training and go right into the workplace.”

Increasing that access, he said, is a good idea at the right time.

“I think probably everyone at community colleges around the nation are excited that the president has highlighted community colleges and is talking about increased opportunity for students all over the country to have access to a community college education. I think it's an exciting time.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.