proposal for tuition-free community college
President Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college, issued earlier this year, seems to have laid down a marker for the Democratic Party. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is touting his plan for free four-year public college on the primary trail; Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren called for “debt-free college” in a high-profile speech; and former senator and U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton has proposed her own plans for tuition-free community college and “no-loan” tuition at four-year public colleges. In this forum, Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of a paper that helped shape the president’s plan, calls for an even more expansive effort-one that includes funding for students’ living and other expenses while they pursue an associate degree at any public institution. Andrew Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the Obama plan will not address low rates of college readiness and student success but will strain public budgets and crowd out innovation.
THE ECONOMY NEEDS MORE WORKERS WITH ASSOCIATE DEGREES
BY SARA GOLDRICK-RAB
AT A JUNE 2015 EDUCATION FORUM hosted by the National Journal, U.S. senator Lamar Alexander threw cold water on recent proposals to make the first two years of college free–because he thinks it already is. The senator explained, “Two years of college for a low-income student is already free, or nearly free.”
It would be wonderful if that were true. But while the senator’s statement is a reasonable description of how college used to be (at least for some), today’s reality is quite different. Attending college is far too expensive for many Americans. The 2012 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, found that after taking all grants and scholarships into account, attending one year of community college runs dependent students from low-income families more than $8,000 in tuition, fees, and living costs (see the green “Net price of attendance” bars in Figure 2). In other words, while it is true that more students are qualifying for and receiving a federal Pell grant, the price after the discount from the Pell is climbing higher and higher (see Figure 1). This is largely driven by living costs, which must be covered if students are to focus their time and energy on school rather than work. Federal loan limits are too low to fully cover these costs, but they are the true costs of degree completion. Tuition and fees are the price of access–living costs are the price of success.
The whole concept of higher education is under debate in America today–public versus private versus for-profit, preprofessional versus liberal arts, in-person versus online. One thing, however, should be clear to all: when large numbers of people can’t afford college at all, the system is broken.
The American people know this. A 2014 Gallup-Lumina Foundation study found that, of those surveyed, a whopping 96 percent said that postsecondary education was important, and 79 percent believed that college wasn’t affordable for everyone in this country who needed it. This is not a partisan issue. Americans want and need college to be much more affordable.
Responding in part to the needs of employers, communities around the country are calling for plans to make at least the first few years of college very inexpensive or even free. President Obama’s proposal, America’s College Promise, would eliminate tuition at community colleges for eligible students, reducing the average annual cost by about $3,800.
Senator Alexander’s reluctance to embrace Obama’s plan is ironic, since Alexander’s home state has been a leader on the issue. In 2014, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, created the Tennessee Promise, which uses lottery funds to cover tuition and fees not covered by the Pell grant or other state assistance to make two years of community college more affordable for all Tennessean high-school graduates. Obama’s plan builds on Haslam’s.
An Associate Degree Makes a Difference
Decades ago, a high school education was enough for most folks to earn a middle-class living, build a family, and live out the American dream. Strong U.S. manufacturing and three decades of high economic growth (from the 1940s to the 1970s) sustained millions of relatively high-paying jobs for high school grads.
But the American economy has changed. Completing 12 years of school doesn’t cut it in the current job market. U.S. employers complain of a skills gap. They need many more employees with technical skills than they can find. Workplaces require more technological ability, better social skills, and a broader grounding in multiple disciplines. This is exactly what a postsecondary education offers.
President Obama’s focus on the first two years of college makes sense. Two-year associate degrees pay off. The unemployment rate for people with associate degrees is 25 percent lower than for those with just a high school diploma. Forty percent of people who earn associate degrees go on to earn higher degrees. If the associate degree is completed by the time a person is 20 years old, then 60 percent of the time it is a milestone toward a higher degree. And people with even a couple years of college make significantly more money, on average, than those with none.