Obama's Free Education?

On Jan. 9, at Pellissippi Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., President Obama announced that he plans to make community college free for "all students if they attend classes at least half time and maintain a grade point average of 2.5 or better.” Under this proposal, entitled “America’s College Promise,” the federal government would provide 75 percent of funds, and the states would supply the rest. The program is expected to cost sixty billion dollars over the course of ten years. During his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, Obama revealed that some of the funds would be raised by altering the annual tax breaks, ultimately resulting in a “middle class economy.”

Covenant’s Professor of Community Development Steve Corbett sees college, and community college in particular, as an important bridge between the poverty class and the working lower-middle class. “High school education is just not enough,” Corbett says, explaining that the world is moving toward a “knowledge economy” and a need for skilled workers. On this matter, Corbett agrees with President Obama, who stated in his address that a community college education is comparable to what a high school education was 100 years ago.

“Could we afford it? Of course. It’s just a matter of how you prioritize government spending,” says Corbett, who notes that this is a classic divider between right and left political party lines. Corbett maintains that students should have to invest in some non-tuition expenditures themselves, in order to take ownership of their education. He argues, though, that the country should prioritize removing obstacles to attending college because it helps those in the lower classes build confidence that they can escape the cycle of poverty.

There is certainly a precedent for government funded education with federally funded public high schools and the federal grant program. In fact, Tennessee has already begun implementing free tuition for community colleges with their “Tennessee Promise Program,” which has inspired efforts in Mississippi, Oregon, and Chicago, Illinois, as well as President Obama’s own proposal.

However, the plan as it stands faces heavy criticism. Alabama Senator Bradley Byrne states that, "Most states, including Alabama, are already stretched far too thin, and it would be unlikely they could bear the financial burden.” According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, "This demand may well result in a rationing of available slots at community colleges or in diminished quality because of drastically reduced per-student expenditures.”

Dr. Steve Kaufmann, Covenant’s specialist in the changing philosophy of American education, argues that the problem has been misidentified entirely. “The issue is not access. The issue is support,” Kaufmann says. Kaufmann cites statistics saying that of the 8 million community college students across the country, 65-80 percent drop out before graduation. In addition, a study by the Community College Research Center reveals that more than 60 percent of community college students take at least one remedial or developmental course before graduation. Kaufmann suggests that the money would be better spent improving the educational system as a whole and creating support programs for students to build retention. Professor Corbett agrees, recommending a financial incentive for those who earn their degrees alongside a means-tested system of financial aid.

With a Republican-controlled Congress and bad press from both conservative and liberal media outlets, it is unlikely that Obama’s proposal to make community colleges completely free will even pass. However, the proposal raises an important dialogue about the government’s responsibility in funding education that is likely to continue shaping the country over the next several years.