News-Star: Community

Free college worries, excites

President Barack Obama’s proposal for free community college for Americans is meeting both excitement and criticism.

He outlined his plan in a speech at a community college in Tennessee – a state that pays community college cost for residents with lottery money. Ninety percent of Tennessee high school graduates have applied for Tennessee Promise, the program launched by that state’s governor, Republican Bill Haslam.

“Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it,” Obama said. “Because in America, a quality education cannot be a privilege that is reserved for a few.”

The proposal, dubbed America’s College Promise, would provide two years of free community college for students with at least a 2.5 grade point average who are making progress toward a two-year degree or a technical certificate in a high-demand field. It would cover tuition but not living expenses or other costs.

The program could be “a game changer” for states willing to participate and pay one-quarter of their students’ tab, Obama said. The federal government would cover the rest. The pricetag is unknown but would be substantial.

If all states participated, an estimated 9 million students would be eligible, according to the White House. A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 annually.

But the president’s proposal faces plenty of hurdles. The Republican-controlled Congress would have to approve the spending. North Carolina’s GOP-controlled legislature, which declined the federal government’s Medicaid expansion, would have to allocate its share of the costs for North Carolina students.

Some members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation expressed skepticism over the plan.

Revisit Pell Grants

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, said federal dollars would be better spent on existing programs. He suggested shoring up Pell Grants. “Pell Grants provide students with maximum choice in post-secondary options from all sectors of higher education, including community colleges,” he said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican and former president of Mayland Community College in Spruce Pine, said Obama had a “bad habit” of creating new programs without identifying a way to pay for them. “Increasing the number of students who have access to higher education must be a priority, but this is the wrong approach for the federal government to take,” she said in a statement.

Criticism came from various political quarters.

Advocates for low-income students said creating a broad financial aid plan wouldn’t be the best use of scarce public dollars.

“Making tuition free for all students regardless of their income is a missed opportunity to focus resources on the students who need aid the most,” said a blog post from the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success.

Community college leaders were eager to learn more about the plan – and its political chances.

David Johnson, president of Johnston Community College, called Obama’s proposal ambitious and in line with the JCC mission of student access to quality education and training.

“What we must continue to remember, however, is while access to higher education is important, student success is equally important,” Johnson said. “As we continue to make community college education affordable, community colleges must be funded adequately. Continued deterioration in state funding while community college faculty salaries rank among the lowest in the Southeast requires us to grapple with more issues than simply free tuition. Affordability is of little consequence if students do not have access to quality faculty, facilities and support.”

Scott Ralls, president of the N.C. Community College System, pointed out that the state’s 58 colleges are already among the most affordable in the country. The state has made a strong commitment to community colleges for 50 years, he said, and he’s intrigued that the federal government may now increase support.

“Community colleges, as much as any institution out there, provide pathways to the American dream,” Ralls said. “The more we can make that accessible and make that opportunity available, the better it is for all of us. ... Obviously, though, those commitments require a level of investment and a level of resources.”

Rep. Tim Moore, North Carolina’s new Speaker of the House, said he wants to know more details and he’s not sure Congress will support it.

“I believe our community colleges are one of the great reasons we’ve been successful in industrial recruitment and retention,” Moore said. “Anything to help people get an education is a good thing.”

‘What Tennessee has done’

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who accompanied Obama at his announcement, said in a statement that the best way to expand community college on a national scale “is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done.”

Alexander, chairman of the Senate education committee, said it’s not as big a task as it seems because 56 percent of Tennessee’s community college students already have a federal Pell Grant, which averages $3,300, toward the average $3,800 tuition cost. The state pays the difference – roughly $500.

Wake Technical Community College President Stephen Scott said the idea is not totally new. Community college tuition used to be free in California.

“On the surface, I think it’s a great idea,” Scott said. “It may help cut down on student debt, so I think that’s a plus. The question becomes how is the federal government going to pay for this.”

Student tuition for North Carolina community college students, he said, amounts to about $360 million a year.

Rye Robinson, president of Wake Tech’s student government association, said his only concern would be that a huge influx of students could mean the end of small classes and personal attention.

Otherwise, he said, “I think it’s a wonderful thought and wonderful start.”