President Obama

Tuition-Free Community College

Visionary Proposal or Empty Promise?

Alexis Patterson

It’s one year down and one to go as President Obama seeks to make free community college part of his legacy.

First introduced by the president in his January 2015 State of the Union address, the proposed America’s College Promise Act would provide two years of taxpayer-funded tuition waivers to qualifying students. It comes with an estimated price tag of $80 billion over a decade; three quarters of the funding would come from the federal government with participating states covering the remainder of the cost.

While several states or communities have implemented similar programs, America’s College Promise failed to get a foothold in the Republican-controlled Congress over the past year. Critics balked at the idea of another federal program and pointed out its high cost in the face of an $18 trillion national debt. Others say it is an opportunity the United States can’t afford to pass up.

"College is fundamental to an increasing number of jobs, but even with the reasonable tuition offered at community colleges, higher education is out of reach financially for many people," said Reginald Gates, TCC’s vice chancellor for communications and external affairs.

America’s College Promise is a tool that would allow us to open our doors even wider to meet the educational needs of our communities.

Vice Chancellor Reginald Gates

If the proposal were passed by Congress, the average savings to students across the country would be $3,800 per year. At TCC, two full-time semesters – 15 hours each, or 30 hours total -- is $1,485 for students who reside in Tarrant County.

The White House projects that by 2020, 30 percent of all job openings will require some college experience or an associate degree, while 35 percent of positions will require at least a bachelor’s degree.

"One of the biggest problems our nation faces is the fact that we have approximately 3 million unfilled jobs but a workforce that does not possess the necessary skills to fill them," said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat whose district includes portions of Tarrant County.

I am a strong supporter of the president’s proposal. Helping to pave the way for our students’ future is a critical part of any long-term economic plan.

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey

To be eligible for the program, students would be required to attend school at least half time, have a 2.5 GPA and make ongoing academic progress. The tuition waivers would apply to community college programs that fully transfer to universities or that are in demand by employers, and colleges must adopt certain reforms aimed at improving student outcomes.

One of the many issues the proposal raises is how colleges would handle the influx of students that free tuition would bring, with the White House estimating that 9 million students would take advantage of the program if all states participate. Gates says colleges would need to put renewed emphasis on completion to keep students moving through the education pipeline and into the workforce.

"Community colleges have to create pathways that give students the ability to excel—pathways that will guide students to take courses sequentially and take courses only in their degree plan, so they can reach their goals in the fastest possible time," noted Gates.

Haley Baker, a Trinity River Campus student majoring in English, sees both sides of the issue.

"I think the proposal has great intentions to help many people who thought they did not have a chance to go to college," Baker said. "But why should we put an even heavier burden on taxpayers?"

Would students be motivated to do well in school if they are able to go for free? Those kinds of questions raise red flags in my mind.

TCC Student Haley Baker

For lawmakers who oppose the proposal, those aren’t just red flags – they're concrete reasons to say no to America’s College Promise.

Regarding the America’s College Promise Act, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, who also represents portions of Tarrant County, said, "Making anything free, including education, sounds great until you realize that someone has to pay for it. President Obama can tout free education all he wants but the massive infusion of federal dollars has never lowered the cost of anything."

With the proposal facing significant opposition in Congress, President Obama took his message on the road early last fall to try to gain public support. He also announced the creation of an advisory board co-led by Jill Biden, second lady of the United States and a community college instructor. But some political watchers say those efforts won’t get America’s College Promise passed.

"It was dead on arrival at Congress," said Paul Benson, professor and chair of the government department at the Northwest Campus.

Whatever the proposal’s true intent, it has the backing of some presidential candidates. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both advocated for debt-free college plans, but the presidential race isn’t expected to give America’s College Promise greater traction.

"It might get mentioned in one of the debates, but I don’t think this is an issue with any real legs," maintained Benson. "It seems more important to us in higher education than it does to the average voter. Of all the concerns, this is pretty far down on the list."

I do not think it was a serious policy proposal; I think it was a political proposal that was never intended to become law. Its purpose was to make Republicans look bad in the process.

Professor Paul Benson

With no immediate sign of the support needed for the proposal’s approval, student Haley Baker offers other advice to those struggling with the cost of college.

"I would encourage students to research the many options that already exist for paying for college," she said. "Visit a financial aid office, talk to an advisor and apply for scholarships. Help is out there."

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