Would free tuition boost student success at community colleges?

President Obama’s plan to make the first two years of community college free could help up to 9 million students and add educated employees to the workforce. But it would cost the federal government billions and would have to pass a GOP-controlled Congress. Hari Sreenivasan gets reaction to the proposal from Andrew Kelly of American Enterprise Institute and Josh Wyner of the Aspen Institute.

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    President Obama was back on the road previewing some of his new proposals for his State of the Union speech. He unveiled an ambitious plan to offer two years of free tuition for community college.

    But there are questions about the details and whether it even has the right goals.

    Again to Hari Sreenivasan for that story.


    Thank you so much. Thank you.


    The president spoke at a community college in Knoxville, Tennessee, where a state program on which the president's federal proposal is partially modeled will be available to students who graduate high school this year.

    Nearly 90 percent of Tennessee's high school seniors have already applied for that plan. The federal plan would cover full- and half-time students who maintain a 2.5-point grade average, and apply to colleges that offer credit toward a four-year degree or occupational training in high-demand fields.

    The president said all students should have similar opportunities, but have to work for it.


    Students would have to do their part by keeping their grades up. Colleges would have do their part by offering high-quality academics and helping students actually graduate. States would have to their part too. This isn't a blank check. But for those willing to do the work, it can be a game-changer.


    The federal government would fund 75 percent of tuition costs, estimated at $60 billion over 10 years. Participating states would pick up the remaining 25 percent. The administration says its plan could cover as many as nine million students over a decade if all 50 states participate.

    Several Republicans said they were not ready to support it. Senator and former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, who was in attendance at the president's event today, wrote that states should follow their own path, not a federal one. With Republicans now firmly in control in the Congress, the president's proposal may be a hard sell.

    Two views now about this proposal and what it could mean for access and affordability.

    Josh Wyner is the executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. Andrew Kelly is the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at AEI, the American Enterprise Institute.

    Josh, when you hear about the idea of free community college for all, how happy are you about this?

  • JOSH WYNER, Aspen Institute:

    Well, I think the president's proposal recognizes that we have to do something bold about higher education in our country.

    The fact of the matter is that we're projected within the next decade to need an educated work force that — where 60 percent of Americans have a college degree. And, today, just over 40 percent have one.

    The second dynamic I think this addresses is that we have got a gap between rich and poor that's growing in our country. And we still have lots of Americans, low-income Americans, African-American folks in the country, who don't get access to higher education. This is dealing with both of those.

    It offers promise both to meet the need for a more educated citizenry and to start to give people an opportunity to enter the middle class who otherwise might not have that opportunity.


    So, Andrew, will free increase the success rate of students?

  • ANDREW KELLY, American Enterprise Institute:

    Look, the truth of the matter is, community college is already exceptionally affordable.

    If you look across the country, the average net price of tuition after subtracting out grants and scholarships is essentially zero for most students, meaning that they don't pay a dime to go to community college. Yet, their graduation rates tend to hover around 30 percent.

    Assuming that just making college tuition free at these institutions is going to somehow automatically increase student success rates, I think, is really naive.


    Josh, what about the argument that this is not the place of the federal government, that is perhaps something that states should decide?


    Well, first of all, on the ground, community college students are in fact working full-time jobs, a third of them, and 75 percent some jobs, in order to make ends meet.

    Even though tuition is covered by current federal policy, federal grants for low-income students, the full cost of attendance is not. So, on the ground, the reality is that community college students are struggling to make ends meet.

    And, sure, it's important that states do their part and roll up their sleeves. But, throughout history, the federal government has taken bold steps to increase equality of access to education and to ensure that all Americans get access to what our country needs as a whole to drive forward, again, economic mobility, as well as drive economic competitiveness of the country.

    So I think, absolutely, there is a role for a partnership here, which is what this is. The dollars would be funneled through states to colleges to serve students. And the federal government needs to play a role and states need to play a role.

    And I think that, given the public good that can come from much higher education access and attainment, both should be making an investment.


    Andrew, what about that idea, that this is the role of the federal government, to take these big leaps forward for societal goods?


    I think, when you really dig into this proposal, it actually reads a lot more like a federal reform agenda for community colleges dressed up as free tuition.

    When you look at the fact sheet that the White House released today, what you see is a laundry list of policies and reforms that states and community colleges would have to adopt, all in the hopes of fixing community colleges from Washington.

    I'm skeptical that that's something that the federal government is well-suited to take on. And I think there are ways that we can encourage colleges to do better, without necessarily making college free and governing them in a top-down fashion from inside the Beltway.


    Josh, this doesn't happen in a vacuum. The Republicans now control Congress. What is the political possibility that this gets through?


    Well, this is a bold proposal. And I have to think — I think we have to think about this as a long-term prospect.

    I think, fundamentally, we are changing the idea. Once upon a time, a century ago, high school wasn't universal for our country. I think this is putting a marker down and saying, in today's society, in order to have a chance to get into the middle class, in order to fuel economic growth for our country, we need more people with a college credential.

    And whether this gets through in this Congress and with the gridlock, I think it's going to be tough, or is a part of the next election cycle or a future Congress, I think the idea that is being put forth here, which is that we need to take a bold step to fundamentally reset our expectation for what it means to be prepared to contribute to our economy and to move forward into the middle class.


    Andrew Kelly, you get the final word here. The political likelihood of taking this bold step?


    Well, I think Josh is actually right on this.

    And the broader point here is that, the political realities aside and the technical details of the proposal, this is something that we will now debate because it is on the national agenda. It is highly likely that it becomes a plank in the Democratic platform, frankly. So, it's something we will be talking about for the next decade at least, I would imagine.

    So it is really time now to have a full debate about the right way to spend our dollars and the right way to make sure that all students have access to an option that fits their needs.


    OK, Andrew Kelly, Josh Wyner, we will have you back over the next decade to continue this debate.

    Thanks so much for joining us.


    Thanks so much.


    Thank you.

    PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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