Obama’s #FreeCommunityCollege Plan: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Last week in Tennessee, President Obama proposed a plan to make the first two years of community college free. If every state were to participate, according to White House figures, the plan would benefit 9 million students per year saving them an average of $3,800 in tuition. Based on the Tennessee Promise supported by Republican Governor Bill Haslam, the purpose of the plan is to provide two years of community college education for free for students that maintain a 2.5 grade point average, attend at least half-time, and make progress toward completing their program.

The Good:

1. Improves affordability of college. Unlike many discussions around improving the affordability of higher education, this proposal pushes an aggressive goal of making two years of community college free. Given the need to improve the number of students participating in higher education, providing community colleges for free holds great potential.

2. Forces states to maintain their funding. The biggest problem in the increasing price of higher education has been the drawback of state support. The President’s proposal provides federal funds for 75% of the cost with the states funding 25%. Ensuring that states are sharing the costs means that states can’t withdraw their support as has happened in the past with other policy programs.

3. Sends a powerful message about the affordability of higher education. Beyond the tangible benefits of more funding, this program has the potential to send a critical message about the affordability of college. With few strings attached, the first two years of college is free. Despite all the messages students and families hear about the exorbitant cost of higher education, this program would send a clear message that students can go to school for two years for free. Changing the conversation about higher education could be as impactful as the money itself.

The Bad:

1. Fund two years of college not just community college. I would have preferred the President’s proposal fund two years at any nonprofit college. Community colleges do tremendous work at reaching and serving students with a variety of backgrounds. However, so do many of our nonprofit four year colleges. Alternatively, provide a tuition scholarship equal to community college tuition in a state. Either way, I would liked to have seen four year schools included.

2. Promising and evidence-based reforms. I worry about the caveat including in the proposal about requiring colleges to adopt “promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.” I get it. If the federal government is going to dump a tremendous amount of extra money into higher education, they want to get some reforms for their effort. Yet, I worry about what this means for institutions. There has been so much belt-tightening since the recession that I wonder about the ability of campuses to institute widespread reforms or what the reforms might entail. Additionally, I worry these reforms often increase costs and result in little savings or improved outcomes. This would only put the institutions under greater stress and limit educational quality.

3. Paying for students who don’t need help. Any time you make something free, you are going to pay for someone who can, would, or should be paying for it themselves. It is simply the nature of these kinds of programs. I don’t like it, not sure anyone does, but no one has a good and simple way to avoid it. You just hope the benefits outweigh the costs over the long run.

The Ugly:

1. Partisan politics.

2. Partisan politics.

3. Partisan politics.

The reality is that this proposal has almost no chance of being passed by the new Republican Congress. This is true despite the fact that a similar program has succeeded in a Southern conservative state and championed by a Republican governor. Tennessee Senator and incoming Senate Education Committee Chair Lamar Alexander signaled as much in his statement following the plan’s announcement. The Republicans will argue that the plan amounts to a massive expansion of the federal government’s role in higher education and creates a new entitlement. Beyond this, just the fact that it has Obama’s name on it means it won’t pass. I doubt the plan even gets a vote before Congress.