Cost-free education

President Obama’s new proposal will create opportunity for students across the nation.

By 2020, the workforce is expected to fall behind by 5 million college-educated people. By that time, two out of three jobs will require some college or associate degree, according to a study by Georgetown University.

In response to this problem, President Barack Obama, during his State of the Union Address Jan. 20 of this year, proposed a plan dubbed “America’s College Promise,” a proposal “to lower the cost of community college – to zero.”

The proposal would eliminate tuition for students who attend at least halftime, maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their program, according to Whitehouse.gov.

The proposal will also attempt to build high-quality community colleges, expand technical training within these community colleges, and increase Pell Grants (a type of financial aid), among other things.

Obama has proposed a plan for free community college. Liberals, who tend to believe that the government should provide basic education to everyone who wants it, are largely delighted by the proposition. It may seem like a one size fits all solution to many of America’s problems, due to the need for higher education and the common issue of finances.

There is no shortage of opposition from conservatives and the Republican controlled Congress however, with issues like funding and graduation rates being at the forefront.

The plan, according to Obama, is set to cost $60 billion over 10 years, with federal funding covering three-quarters of the average cost of community college, and participating states picking up the rest. Sixty billion over 10 years, which is $4.5 Billion every year for the federal government, sounds like a lot of money. However, it would be “dirt-cheap” according to Jordan Weissmann of slate.com.

The government has a budget of nearly $140 billion dollars this year, according to the 2015 Fiscal Year budget from Whitehouse.gov. This includes Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Work-Study, Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants and Student Loans.

It’s $140 billion for one year, and Weissmann argues that somewhere in that money, the federal government should be able to find the mere $4.5 billion for free community college.

Still, it may have a hard time getting past the Republican-controlled congress, with heavy opposition to any large spending. As Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told The LA Times when asked if he would support the proposal, “Oh, no, no, no. You’re always better letting states mimic each other.”

Community college is already inexpensive, so making it cost-free   may not be the solution.

“I have never heard anyone say community college is too expensive,” said Lauren Bae, upper school college and guidance counselor at Minnehaha.

Tuition plus living expenses at the University of Minnesota is about $20,000, at a state college it could be from $8,000 to $10,000, and community college tuition would be about $3,000, according to Bae. Also, there is already financial aid from Pell Grants, which is $5,730 available to many students.

In fact, about one-third of students go to community college for free already and only 13 percent pay more than the $3,000 tuition/fees price, according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

However, this doesn’t take everything into account: at Normandale Community College, for example, the price of the tuition plus living expenses (books and supplies, room and board, transportation and personal/miscellaneous) is closer to $14,000. This could be offset by the first dollar program, which would redirect Pell Grants and other aid toward these costs if community college were free. (transition)

“I don’t think it would make a huge impact [at Minnehaha] but I could be wrong…it’s certainly an option for certain students who are not ready and need a little bit of time to figure things out, but there are risks,” said Bae.

Bae went on to express concern that if college were free, students might not be motivated to graduate, along with the concern that if a lot of people had community college associate degrees, the degrees themselves might not get people jobs.

“But that’s so hard for me to predict,” she said, “I just know that sometimes when you make things free, or lower tuition, it doesn’t always have the outcome that you think it will have. For me, it is really about the quality of the graduates and the graduation rates.”

Graduation rates could be the real problem, some say. It’s hard to quantify graduation numbers in community college, as many students come in with different plans: to graduate after two years, to transfer after two years, to attend halftime and graduate later, while some end up dropping out entirely.

Of the 81 percent of students entering community college who say they want a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 25 percent transfer to a four-year college within five years, according to a study by the Community College Research Center.

A study by the National Student Clearinghouse showed that just 15 percent of students who started at a two-year institution completed a degree at a four-year institution within six years.

These numbers may seem discouraging, but one should also note that “America’s College Promise” is not just for free community college, but will also attempt to improve community college.

Obama’s proposed “America’s College Promise” is to many liberals a solution, and just what this country needs: a way to train a higher-educated workforce. Conservatives, on the other hand, think it is just more unnecessary government and wonder where the money will come from and think that the real problem may be graduation rates. Everyone, however, will have to wait and watch as the proposal attempts to make its way through the Republican-controlled Congress.

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About Lucas DiBlasi

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