Obama’s Community College Plan is Big Step, But Details Unclear

President Barack Obama greets people on stage at Pellissippi State Community College, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, in Knoxville, Tenn.

President Barack Obama greets people on stage at Pellissippi State Community College, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, in Knoxville, Tenn.

President Obama’s plan to make two years of community college free for responsible students takes aim at a serious problem in the U.S.: that college remains out of reach for too many Americans, said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García on Friday.

“The President is right to continue pushing to make the dream of a college education more attainable for more students and families,” said García. “At a time when post-secondary education has become even more important, students and their families are scrambling to pay for that education.”

As many as nine million students could attend college for free for two years under the proposed America’s College Promise plan, saving each about an average $3,800 in tuition a year. But the program will need Congress’ approval, and some details need to be fleshed out. High-quality is as important as free, noted García, and faculty and staff will need adequate resources to deliver the high-quality education that students deserve.

“Community colleges are your first chance, your last chance, and often your only chance,” said Des Moines Area Community College history professor Lisa Ossian, a former NEA Board member. Ossian sees students directly out of high school, students who have failed at other institutions or jobs, and students who can’t afford any other options: veterans, immigrants, students with disabilities, and people of poverty.

When she asks them why they’re in her classroom, she usually hears that it’s “cheap!” And while it shouldn’t be expensive, it also shouldn’t be a cut-rate or shoddy education, said Ossian. “Obviously, if you’re going to have more students, which would be great, you’ll need more faculty. Are these going to be more low-paid, over-worked adjuncts? Or people who can build relationships with students? Will class sizes be manageable? Will students have advisors? All of these things are important, and all of them cost money.”

Obama’s community college plan offers an opportunity not just for increased access and affordability, said Mark F. Smith, NEA’s senior policy analyst for higher education, “but also calls for increased investment to build high-quality community colleges and provide faculty and staff to adequately address student needs.”

The College Conundrum

Although public two-year colleges are a real deal compared to private two-year colleges ($3,347 vs. $31,231 per year, according to College Board) the price is still too high for too many poor students and students of color. And yet, studies show that a college education is a necessary part of the American Dream. First get a degree, and then get a good job. The problem is, if you can’t afford the degree, you’re stuck.

NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign has been working for solutions to the twin problems of college affordability and student debt, including advocating for more Pell Grants and low-cost loans, as well as additional state funding for institutions. Because of decades of state funding cuts (and corresponding increases in tuition), college students actually pay more for the cost of a public education these days than state governments, according to a study released this week by the Government Accountability Office.

Obama’s community college plan would re-invest public dollars in public education. The way it would work is that the federal government would cover three-quarters of the cost of community college, while states that choose to participate cover the rest. To qualify, students must maintain a 2.5 grade point average (GPA), or about a C-plus, and “make steady progress toward completing a program,” according to the White House announcement.

For their part, community college also will be expected to offer programs that are either academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year institutions, or are career programs with graduation rates that lead to “in-demand degrees and certificates.”

A similar program in Tennessee, called the Tennessee Promise, which is available to high school students graduating this year, already has received more than 58,000 applications, almost 90 percent of the state’s high school seniors, according to The New York Times.

The Devil is in the Details

But it’s also likely that free tuition isn’t all that students need, unfortunately. Even when poor students do manage to get into community college, there are still big obstacles in their road to degrees. A recent Washington Post analysis found that just one in eight low-income community college students actually earn an associate’s degree within three years. Their progress can be derailed by any “small disruption,” including a broken-down car, a failure in childcare, a new job with new working hours, etc.

Appropriate advising and counseling can help a lot. For example, an award-winning program at LaGuardia Community College in New York pairs social work interns with students transitioning from adult education to degree-awarding programs. Those interns, or “case workers,” help students with problems ranging from financial aid snags to domestic-abuse complaints, and provide referrals for counseling and other services. Of the 120 students served in 2009, all 120 moved into degree-granting programs (a 100 percent conversion rate) and 78 percent persisted into their second-year of the degree program.

But after years of state funding cuts, many community colleges don’t have adequate resources to advise or counsel students. And the burden on counselors or advisors has grown. Often their job description includes mental health counseling, academic and career advising, disabilities services, teaching, tutoring, and more. “The reality is that most days for advisors in a two-year setting most resemble the peddler in the children’s tale Caps For Sale, going about our business while precariously balancing a stack of caps,” wrote the authors of the article, “Advising at the Two-Year College.”