President Barack Obama's proposal to make community college free for Americans who are "willing to work hard" stands almost no chance of being passed this year by a Republican-controlled Congress, but it has reinvigorated national debate over the role of higher education in a democracy.
It also hints at the legacy Obama would like to leave as his presidency winds down, providing a roadmap toward his oft-repeated goal that the US by 2020 would again have "the highest proportion of college graduates in the world”.
Arguing that education was the key to US competitiveness in a global economy, Obama in 2009 called on all Americans to undertake at least a year’s schooling beyond the 12th grade. In his State of the Union address last Tuesday, he went a step further by proposing that taxpayers foot the bill for two years of community college.
In doing so, he linked his aspirations with historic American education turning points, including free universal high school and the landmark GI Bill that, in 1944, opened the doors to college for millions of returning World War II veterans.
Obama: ‘We need to up our game’
"We were ahead of the curve. But other countries caught on," Obama said, referring to data showing that the US had slipped from first to 12th in international rankings of degree attainment among 25-34 year olds. "In a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to up our game," he said.
The free community college proposal comes at a time when other countries are debating who should pay for higher education. Australia is set to debate a proposal that would deregulate fees so that universities could charge students whatever fees they want. The UK’s system of charging tuition fees has become a hot-button campaign issue for general elections.
Alex Usher, president of the Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates, a global consulting firm, says other countries would be wrong to view Obama's proposal primarily as a sign of support for public subsidies.
"In fact, I think he's saying something more profound," says Usher. "The message they should take away is, 'We need everybody to have 14 years of education', not 'Free is best'."
The price tag
The price tag for Obama's America’s College Promise, to be fleshed out early next month in his budget proposal to Congress, is estimated at US$60 billion over 10 years.
The federal government would contribute 75%, which would be paid for by overhauling existing education tax credits that tend to benefit middle- and upper-income families most, while the states, which have traditional authority over higher education matters, would be asked to chip in 25%.
According to White House calculations, full-time students, who would be required to maintain a 2.0 grade point average (a C+) or better and stay on track to graduate from community college in two years, would save an average of US$3,800 in tuition per year. About 9 million students a year could benefit if all 50 states participate, officials say.
Most federal initiatives on college affordability have aimed at offering grants to the neediest students while keeping interest rates low for borrowers.
Obama's proposal would also hold institutions accountable: The only schools that would be eligible would be those that offer academic credits that can be transferred to public four-year colleges or that offer occupational training certificates with high graduation rates that lead to in-demand jobs.
Community colleges would be required to adopt evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.
"This is a structural change," says University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, with whom White House officials consulted as they developed Obama's proposal. "This is serious recognition that people need more education."
While she doubts Obama's plan will go far in Congress, "It's laying the groundwork for future candidates to run on it," Goldrick-Rab says. "The American public is finally putting higher education on the table as a primary voting issue."
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, has already said the federal government should stay out of an issue that belongs to states. Groups that generally support college affordability efforts have also raised concerns.
The California-based Institute for College Access and Success, for example, argues that the plan could benefit wealthier students who do not need the extra funds, and should instead target only needy students who might otherwise not go to college.
The plan also could steer low-income students away from for-profit institutions, less-selective private colleges and regional four-year universities, in which case those institutions would likely see a drop in enrolments – and tuition revenue – among their first- and second-year classes.
Those that accepted transfer students would later see a potentially larger pipeline of transfer students for their junior and senior years. This could complicate operations while diverting public funding to community colleges.
A major restructuring of post-secondary delivery
"We're talking about a national phenomenon that would really cause a major restructuring of post-secondary delivery," says Dan Hurley, associate vice-president for government relations and state policies at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Moreover, he notes that his association's 400-plus member colleges last year generated 27,000 two-year degrees, "so why not make this programme eligible for those colleges that currently offer associates' degrees?"
Obama has been touting the bipartisan appeal of the idea which has been gaining steam in some states. The plan is modelled after a 2014 Tennessee law, championed by the state's Republican governor, that makes any high school graduate in the state eligible for two years of free community college.
Chicago's mayor, a Democrat, unveiled a similar plan last year. Other states, including Mississippi, Oregon and New York, have explored the idea.
Obama's proposal also echoes recommendations made in 1947 for free community college from a commission appointed by then-president Harry S Truman. The 1947 commission, however, "was more concerned about an educated citizenry and a democracy than (for example) job placement," says John Thelin, a University of Kentucky historian of US higher education.
There are other differences, too, Thelin says: In 1947, when about 25% of recent high school graduates continued on to college, the proposal sought to "open the gates wider and higher".
Today, with about 60% of high school graduates going on to college, Obama "is trying to fix a very well-intentioned system that evidently is not working as well as he and others had hoped."
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