Free Community College Gets Mixed Reviews

Tennessee and Oregon will offer tuition-free community college, but not everyone thinks it’s such a good idea.

Tennessee and Oregon will offer certain students access to community college at no cost. 
National Journal
July 23, 2015, 6:30 a.m.

This fall, Cesar Sanc­hez, 18, will do something he nev­er thought pos­sible.

He’ll en­roll at South­w­est Ten­ness­ee Com­munity Col­lege through a state pro­gram called Ten­ness­ee Prom­ise, which lets stu­dents com­plete two years of com­munity col­lege at no cost.

“At one point, I didn’t see my­self go­ing to col­lege after gradu­ation,” he said. “It made me really happy. It really made me set my mind to a goal and ac­com­plish it.”

While the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­pos­al to make com­munity col­lege free lan­guishes in the Belt­way, sev­er­al states, in­clud­ing Ten­ness­ee, are mov­ing ahead with their own plans to make earn­ing an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree as stand­ard as a high school dip­loma.

This month, Ore­gon Gov­ernor Kate Brown signed in­to law a pro­gram that will of­fer tu­ition-free com­munity col­lege to the state’s re­cent high school gradu­ates. Oth­er states are also ex­plor­ing the concept.

“Today, we fling wide open the doors of op­por­tun­ity by ex­pand­ing ac­cess to post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion, the pre­curs­or to a bet­ter life,” Brown said in a state­ment after sign­ing the bill.

It might ini­tially seem sur­pris­ing that a blue state and a red state are pur­su­ing such sim­il­ar goals, but demo­graph­ic sim­il­ar­it­ies between the states provide some clues.

Both Ore­gon and Ten­ness­ee have seen shift­ing pop­u­la­tions in re­cent dec­ades, with par­tic­u­lar in­creases in the Latino pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to Census fig­ures. The Pew Re­search Cen­ter names Ten­ness­ee as hav­ing one of the fast­est-grow­ing Latino pop­u­la­tions, with growth com­ing both from im­mig­ra­tion and births in the state. The states have high­er-than-av­er­age poverty levels and lower-than-av­er­age me­di­an house­hold in­comes. Few­er than 30 per­cent of res­id­ents in each state hold a bach­el­or’s de­gree and there are thou­sands of stu­dents who may be in­ter­ested in col­lege but lack par­ent­al guid­ance and fin­an­cial sup­port when it comes to nav­ig­at­ing the sys­tem.

“I would ab­so­lutely say this is the be­gin­ning of a na­tion­wide con­ver­sa­tion about go­ing to com­munity col­lege.” — Mike Krause, Ten­ness­ee Prom­ise Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or

Stu­dents like Sanc­hez see an op­por­tun­ity to go to col­lege that didn’t ex­ist be­fore.

Raised by a moth­er who came to the United States from Mex­ico and didn’t at­tend col­lege her­self, Sanc­hez said his fam­ily had no money to pay for school.

“I went through a little stage where I … was kind of feel­ing down,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was go­ing to do after high school.”

Pro­ponents of the Ten­ness­ee and Ore­gon pro­grams have said of­fer­ing tu­ition waivers will help boost col­lege gradu­ation rates and grow their states’ eco­nom­ies as they ad­just to less ho­mo­gen­ous pop­u­la­tions.

Ten­ness­ee’s pro­gram is aimed at “work­force and eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment,” said Mike Krause, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Ten­ness­ee Prom­ise, the state’s pro­gram. “The haz­ard is that people see it as [high­er-edu­ca­tion policy.]”

How to make col­lege af­ford­able is a con­ten­tious top­ic right now, and Ten­ness­ee’s Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily want to look like he’s get­ting in line with the White House’s free com­munity-col­lege pro­pos­al. Stu­dents like Sanc­hez are not as con­cerned with how Ten­ness­ee Prom­ise is cat­egor­ized when it launches this year.

“I think it’s a really good thing be­cause it helps people like me,” Sanc­hez said. “It gives them a hope for something.”

High school seni­ors in Ten­ness­ee are eli­gible to at­tend two years of com­munity col­lege at no cost. Un­like the Ore­gon pro­gram, Ten­ness­ee’s does not have a min­im­um GPA re­quire­ment, and stu­dents are re­quired to per­form eight hours of com­munity ser­vice and meet with ment­ors. The Ore­gon pro­gram will per­mit stu­dents to en­roll in com­munity col­lege with­in six months of gradu­at­ing from high school at no cost. Stu­dents must have lived in Ore­gon for at least a year, have at least a 2.5 high school GPA and com­plete a FAF­SA, the fed­er­al fin­an­cial-aid ap­plic­a­tion.

Ore­gon ex­pects up to 6,000 stu­dents to en­roll in the 2016-2017 school year, the ex­pec­ted launch year.

“I hope op­por­tun­it­ies like this cre­ate a col­lege-go­ing cul­ture,” said Meghan Moy­er, dir­ect­or of gov­ern­ment re­la­tions at Port­land Com­munity Col­lege.

Her school ex­pects, she said, to see between 1,200 and 2,000 stu­dents per year from the pro­gram.

But Moy­er, whose col­lege will be tasked with im­ple­ment­ing the new pro­gram’s policies on a daily basis, poin­ted out that most of her stu­dents are older (the av­er­age age is 29) and don’t fit the re­quire­ments.

She also noted that any stu­dent, even one without fin­an­cial need, could take ad­vant­age of the pro­gram.

“PCC would like to see stu­dents pri­or­it­ized who would be un­likely to at­tend high­er edu­ca­tion without as­sist­ance,” Moy­er said.

Mi­chael Horn, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of edu­ca­tion at the Clayton Christensen In­sti­tute, a think tank that fo­cuses on us­ing dis­rupt­ive in­nov­a­tion to de­vel­op solu­tions for the world’s prob­lems, said his con­cern with the idea of free com­munity col­lege is that the people who will take ad­vant­age of the of­fer are not the stu­dents who need fin­an­cial as­sist­ance the most. He’d like to see tests done on oth­er ap­proaches, such as in­come-shar­ing, where a com­pany or oth­er en­tity pays for a stu­dent’s tu­ition and the gradu­ate pays a per­cent­age of his in­come for a set num­ber of years in ex­change, in­stead.

Mam­ie Voight, dir­ect­or of policy re­search at the In­sti­tute for High­er Edu­ca­tion Policy, which fo­cuses on ways to ex­pand ac­cess to col­lege to un­der­served stu­dents, shares Horn’s con­cern.

In­stead of al­low­ing stu­dents who will at­tend col­lege re­gard­less of the pro­grams to re­ceive funds, she’d like to see funds dir­ec­ted spe­cific­ally to low-in­come stu­dents. The pro­grams work by help­ing fill the gap left after Pell and oth­er grants kick in, and Voight is con­cerned that someone with a high­er in­come who isn’t eli­gible for those grants could ul­ti­mately re­ceive more money.

But to Krause, the Ten­ness­ee pro­gram’s dir­ect­or, that mind-set “com­pletely fails to ac­count for the cata­lyz­ing ef­fect fin­an­cial aid has,” he said.

First-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents, he ex­plained, don’t ne­ces­sar­ily know what FAF­SA is, or what a Pell Grant is, or how to get them. With Ten­ness­ee Prom­ise, the mes­sage that col­lege is an op­tion is clear, and there’s a spelled-out path­way for how to achieve it.

“It has the po­ten­tial to be a game-changer,” said Dwayne Scott, vice pres­id­ent of Stu­dent Ser­vices and En­roll­ment Man­age­ment at South­w­est Ten­ness­ee Com­munity Col­lege, where Sanc­hez plans to en­roll.

While he doesn’t know yet how many stu­dents his school will add as a res­ult of the pro­gram, he sup­ports the idea and said his school hasn’t been tasked with ad­di­tion­al work bey­ond re­mind­ing stu­dents, in con­junc­tion with the non­profit Ten­ness­ee Achieves, the pro­gram’s part­ner, that they must com­plete com­munity-ser­vice hours and fill out the FAF­SA each year.

“I don’t think we make it easy for first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents to see them­selves in col­lege,” Krause said. “What the Ten­ness­ee Prom­ise brings is a clear sense of vis­ion … that you can go tu­ition-free, you are col­lege ma­ter­i­al.”

That mes­sage ap­pears to be res­on­at­ing.

Krause said that 58,000 stu­dents, or about 80 per­cent of the seni­or class, ap­plied, and he ex­pects 16,000 to ac­tu­ally en­roll. Many of those who ap­plied, he said, will likely at­tend four-year uni­versit­ies in­stead.

While Krause said fig­ures aren’t yet in on how many are first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents or how many would be un­able to at­tend oth­er­wise, about half are on full Pell Grants, de­signed to help the na­tion’s poorest stu­dents at­tend col­lege.

“We have a range of an­ec­dot­al evid­ence in­dic­at­ing these stu­dents are dif­fer­ent than the stu­dents who would typ­ic­ally en­roll,” he said.

Krause was in­volved in the de­vel­op­ment of the Ore­gon pro­gram and said the state isn’t the only one that has reached out. While he de­clined to name oth­er states who have in­quired about the pro­gram, Krause said he has had “ser­i­ous in­terest” from five oth­er states and is aware that more are watch­ing closely as the pro­gram gets un­der­way.

“I would ab­so­lutely say this is the be­gin­ning of a na­tion­wide con­ver­sa­tion about go­ing to com­munity col­lege,” he said.

The mo­mentum comes as Pres­id­ent Barack Obama con­tin­ues to call for free com­munity col­lege na­tion­wide, and 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates are lay­ing out their own plans to make col­lege more af­ford­able. While he out­lined a plan in Janu­ary and sev­er­al Demo­crat­ic law­makers have in­tro­duced a bill to move it for­ward, the chances of com­munity col­leges na­tion­wide be­com­ing free are slim. The White House has said it would cost the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment about $60 bil­lion over 10 years, a price tag that Re­pub­lic­an law­makers are re­luct­ant to ac­cept. But if in­terest in Ten­ness­ee’s and Ore­gon’s pro­grams is an in­dic­a­tion, more states may soon draft their own pro­pos­als.

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