Will the Free Community College Campaign Survive?

Posted By Derek Johnson on October 27, 2016 at 4:46 pm
Will the Free Community College Campaign Survive?

During his 2015 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama made a bold declaration: Community college, which serves about half the undergraduate student population, should be free across the nation. He pointed to promising state and local programs such as Tennessee Promise and Chicago’s Star scholarships as models for the rest of the country to institute free community college.

“By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education – two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s sure not smart for our future,” Obama said.

Flash forward 20 months, and educators and policymakers across the country are gathering this week at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., for PromiseNet, a conference to swap strategies and discuss how the push for “college promise” programs can maintain momentum after Obama leaves office.

Where things stand on free community college

On the one hand, there are some genuine successes:

  • The Obama administration helped to establish the College Promise Campaign within the nonpartisan nonprofit Civic Nation to lobby local, state and federal policymakers to adopt free community college proposals.
  • During the past two years, college promise programs have popped up around the country, with 23 states and dozens of cities and localities introducing legislation designed to guarantee free community college access.
  • States like Tennessee have seen notable boosts in college enrollment, retention, completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and graduation rates since implementation.
  • Earlier this year, the Obama administration pumped $100 million in grant funding for college promise programs.

That said, the debate around “free” college has become fraught with political animus and partisanship, particularly since the 2016 presidential election kicked off with Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders rolling out ambitious national debt-free and tuition-free college proposals. Although the College Promise Campaign and Civic Nation have struck an adamantly nonpartisan posture in promoting the concept, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s spokesman called Obama’s national college promise proposal a “liberal pie-in-the-sky” idea, while public polling has consistently revealed sharp divisions between Americans by age and party affiliation when it comes to free college guarantees.

While most surveys show a majority or plurality in favor, younger and more liberal respondents express near unanimous support for the idea; Republicans and older Americans are overwhelmingly against it.

free community college one

Source: Public Agenda

free community college chart two

Source: Gallup

Threading a treacherous needle

That is not to say that college promise policies are strictly the domain of Democratic politicians. They’re not. Tennessee Republicans including Gov. Bill Haslam and Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker were early adopters whose support for free community college predates Obama’s. But while they like college promise programs in their own state, they have come out staunchly against a national or federalized version.

“The right way to expand Tennessee Promise nationally is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done,” Alexander said in response to Obama’s State of the Union comments.

So how do supporters push for universal free community college while managing the small government sensibilities of a political party that controls nearly 70 percent of state legislatures?

“Carefully,” according to Dr. Michael Nettles, senior vice president of Education Testing Services. While not adverse to federal legislation, the organization has intentionally taken an all-inclusive approach, working with politicians and policymakers in their home states and localities to develop, fund and implement different versions of a college guarantee. Once those programs are embedded at the state and local level, Nettles said the “elephant in the room” is how they interact with federal student aid and the Higher Education Act.

“It may be what you’re hearing is that a national program with one approach used in every community across the country is not the right idea,” Nettles said during a conference call with the press. “But what you might also probe to find out is as local communities build their own models, whether there is something the federal government could do through student aid or the Higher Education Act to promote [them].”

This flexibility has helped college promise programs to expand their footprint across the country and allowed for experimentation – at the expense of cohesion. The result is a hodgepodge of localized programs stitched together under the “college promise” brand, with some programs bearing little resemblance to others.

Chris Cabaldon, mayor of West Sacramento, CA, and College Promise board member, points out that most localities do not have authority over their public colleges and that making the program sustainable depended on support and intervention from higher authorities. “Congressional action on the promise would be hugely important. In the cities, we’re doing this and it’s a great competitive advantage, but long term, that’s not a successful strategy for the country,” Cabaldon says.

What free community college access won’t fix

While most agree that more widespread adoption of these programs will increase access to college, that still doesn’t address myriad problems plaguing the higher education landscape, particularly at community colleges.

Most two-year and four-year universities are already struggling to get their current student population to graduate on time or even finish at all. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, just 39 percent of community college students finish their degree programs within six years, including those who wind up transferring to four-year schools.

Estimates place the percentage of community college students taking remedial courses at 60 to 70 percent. College readiness, already approaching crisis levels, is likely to become even worse as the target demographic for most college promise proposals (low-income and first generation students) are among the groups most likely to struggle with college curriculums and drop out.

“It can’t just be about money, specifically if you’re targeting first generation students. It can’t just be ‘Here’s the money, good luck to you,’” says Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of tnAchieves, which helps manage and administer Tenneseee Promise scholarships.

Even ardent supporters acknowledge that good intentions aren’t enough and that simply pumping more bodies into the current dysfunctional system may wind up creating as many problems as it solves. Some point to models in Tennessee and Indiana that assign coaches and mentors to each promise recipient, helping guide them through their academic careers and addressing college readiness. Further, boosters hope that the diversity of programs across the country gives educators ample room to experiment with linking college promise guarantees to other policies such as child savings accounts, college future centers at high schools and on-time student behaviors such as full semester course loads.

David Wessel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, says engaging with critics of college promise programs is vital to crafting policies that avoid unintended consequences. “It’s also important to think about the skepticism and criticisms about community college and free community college, because it will make us more effective advocates instead of pretending that this is all universal,” he says. “Sometimes we reward things that we don’t mean to reward and get less than full desired results.”

Modest success and an uncertain future

While the push for free community college has made major strides in the past two years, the future brings with it much uncertainty. Next year will be the first year that College Promise operates without the Obama administration providing regular support. Taking its place will be either a Trump administration openly hostile to the concept of free college or a Clinton administration with a bursting-at-the-seams higher education platform that could overshadow other nationwide efforts.

On top of that, 2017 might be the year when Congress finally gets around to passing an update to the Higher Education Act, which affects nearly every major aspect of the higher education landscape and could either be a help or a hindrance to a national promise campaign depending on which party controls the Senate. In the meantime, educators such as Eloy Oakley, incoming chancellor of the California Community College System, try to work with the resources they have to build a more hopeful future for their constituents.

“The key is, what are we doing to social mobility? That is the achievement. Are we moving [students] along on the social ladder and giving them an opportunity?” Oakley says. “The more we can look at it in that frame, the more successes we will have to celebrate.”


Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

You May Also Like