by Grady Brown
In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama unveiled his plans for free community college. Surely one of the highlights of the address, the plan would offer two years of community college free to students who maintain a minimum GPA of 2.5. The plan was largely based on the Tennessee Promise and is aimed at giving more students feasible pathways to higher education and, potentially, a four year degree. However, should the proposal make it to the floor, it will face a fight in Congress.
One of many areas of debate will simply be the price tag. In his recent 2016 budget proposal, the President outlines the cost of free community college. In 2016 alone, the plan would come at a price of $1.36 billion. By 2023, the price tag would be closer to $9 billion, bringing total costs to over $60 billion. Obama wants the federal government to pay 75 percent of the tab, leaving the remaining 25 percent to the states. Nevertheless, Republicans will be deeply concerned about program costs.
Another concern that may not be in the spotlight, is the current track record of community colleges. According to arecent study by the National Student Clearinghouse, just 15 percent of students started at a two year institution in 2006 actually completed a degree at a four-year institution within six years.
Furthermore, another National Student Clearinghouse study and a National Center for Education Statistics study found that just 25 percent of community college students actually transferred to a four-year institution, even though more than 80 percent of entering community college students indicated they wanted to attain a bachelor’s degree.
There is also debate over the federal role in higher education, of which this initiative would mark a significant expansion. Some lawmakers are supportive of increasing access to community college, but question the federal government’s role. Newly appointed chair of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee, Lamar Alexander (R-TN), released a statement claiming that the “right way to expand Tennessee Promise nationally is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done.” Alexander argues for federal support in the form of Pell grants, both by expanding the grants and making them easier to apply for.
Sen. Alexander makes a valid point. More than 55 percent of community college students in Tennessee receive Pell Grants, easing the burden of the state to pay the rest of the tab. It is possible that a federal community college program would overlap with resources already available to students.
Still, there is support for the plan. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, responded to the President’s plan with much enthusiasm, stating, “The return on investment is stunning – more than $205,000 in increased tax revenues and savings in social safety-net costs for a program cost of only $3,900 per student.”
In Virginia, free community college could impact a large number of students. According Virginia’s Community Colleges, an organization that oversees a network of 23 community colleges across the state, community colleges serve over 273,000 students. Furthermore, 35 percent – over 9,750 students – are currently on financial aid.
Using IPEDS data, which the National Center for Education Statistics maintains, Virginia’s 23 community colleges had a 4-year graduation rate of nearly 25 percent in 2013, up from 23.5 percent and 23 percent in 2012 and 2011 respectively. The Virginia community college system had only 66,000 full time enrollees in 2013. The full-time enrollment numbers represent a slight decrease from 2012 and 2011, when full time enrollment was about 70,000 students.
According to the State Council for Higher Education (SCHEV), 408 students transferred from the Virginia Community College System to U.Va. in the 2012-2013 academic year; while 431 transferred the year prior, only 395 transferred in 2010-2011. One-hundred forty-six of those students were students of color, a sharp increase over prior years. According to IPEDS, eight-year graduation rates for the University are about 94 percent, so most U.Va. students comes away with a Bachelors degree. It’s possible, by offering two free years of community college, Virginians can have a clearer pathway to a four year degree.
But a more likely route for some of these community college students may be the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Wise almost entirely independent of the University of Virginia’s main campus, although it is overseen by the same Board of Visitors and its chancellor reports to U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan. Eighty percent ofWise students receive financial aid and the school has a 77 percent acceptance rate. The substantially smaller school – it has 3,000 undergraduates to U.Va.’s 18,000 plus according to IPEDS – accepted 108 transfer students from VCCS and has accepted more than 100 transfers for seven of the last eight years for which data is available. Wise, according to IPEDS, had a 40 percent eight-year graduation rate in 2013, down from 47 and 48 percent in the two preceding years. The drastically different opportunities available to transfer students show the potential benefits and pitfall’s of the President’s proposal.
The President recently released his budget proposal to Congress who will decide whether or not to fund this initiative. While there may be some bipartisan support for the President’s plan, it likely will face steep opposition. There’s no doubt that a number of students across the country could benefit from two years of community college paid for, but the price tag and recent trends in some aspects of community college will fuel opponents of the initiative.