President Obama’s Plan for Free Community College: Pros and Cons

Posted By Liz Seasholtz on March 9, 2015 at 2:00 pm
President Obama’s Plan for Free Community College: Pros and Cons

After several years of steady increase, college enrollment rates are on the decline. In fact, the Census Bureau reported that the recent drop in attendance (nearly half a million between 2012 and 2013) is the largest decrease in enrollment since 1966 when recordkeeping began.

One reason for this decline? Tuition rates are rising faster than families can keep up with them. Pair that with stagnant wages and the lingering effects of the Great Recession, and you can understand why some are reluctant to invest in higher education.

However, it looks like things could be about to change – at least if a recent proposal from President Obama comes to pass.

Help for struggling families

In early January, President Obama outlined a plan that would make two years of community college free for most U.S. students. The proposal, which was officially announced on January 9 at a Knoxville community college and reiterated on the White House website, would offer free tuition to all community college students, as long as they are enrolled at least half-time and maintain at least a 2.5 GPA.

In his announcement, the President recalled the thriving American economy after high school attendance became the norm, and said that community college should not cost families more than high school does. Under his proposal, the federal government would cover 75% of the costs of community college – an estimated $60 billion over ten years. The remaining 25% would be left for individual states to pay.

For each of the potential 9 million affected students, this could mean cost savings of about $3,800 per year. And, as the President pointed out in the State of the Union address, the plan isn’t restricted to students just graduating high school, either. The initiative could also help older Americans looking to gain new skills or change careers, veterans transitioning back into civilian life, and parents trying to reenter the job market after time away.

Potential drawbacks

Most people are eager to back a plan that will help lower tuition costs. Once concern, however, is that President Obama’s plan fails to address the fact that only about a third of all community college students graduate with a degree from a two or four-year college. An American Association of Community Colleges study cites several reasons for these low numbers, and only one of them is cost. Other factors include a lack of support and a lack of preparation. According to the study, 60% of students entering community colleges need remedial classes to cover skills that were not learned in high school.

The president’s proposal plan would send more of these students to college – an undeniably good thing. But it doesn’t touch on the other things students need to succeed – things like advisors and counselors to track progress, course requirements that align with career goals, coherent and logical degree programs, and help for students outside of class. In order for some of these students to succeed, critics argue, they’ll need more than just free tuition.

Another potential issue? How community colleges will cope with large increases in enrollment. More students will mean more tuition dollars. But many community colleges across the country rely heavily on taxes and other endowments to cover expansions, renovations, and other expenses that tuition does not. If colleges experience a rush of applications, will they have the staff, space, and resources to cover the increased enrollment?

Is free community college a good idea?

Pundits, politicians and educators alike can agree that increasing college enrollment is a priority. And, despite potential drawbacks, President Obama’s plan is at the very least good place to start. In a February 6 town hall meeting in Indianapolis, the president pointed to a growing economy and promising employment reports to show that the need for skilled workers is increasing. His goal is to increase the income of average Americans by giving them a stronger educational background. The success of that goal depends on a number of factors – including whether Congress will approve the plan.


Liz Seasholtz

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