By John Irwin
When President Barack Obama unveiled his $4 trillion budget yesterday, very little of it came as a surprise.
After all, he used his recent State of the Union address and numerous speeches leading up to it to essentially lay out his vision for what a post-recession America should look like. His budget is reflective of that.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Obama’s vision/budget is his universal community college proposal. The plan, first teased a few weeks ago, would provide free tuition for two years of schooling at a community college, provided the student maintains a 2.5 GPA.
The plan, based in part of a program created by Tennessee’s Republican government, would be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy.
Universal community college is an admirable goal, and it’s one that deserves a serious look from the congressional Republican leadership. (Spoiler alert: That probably won’t happen.)
That being said, Obama’s plan falls well short of actually addressing the major crises facing both community colleges and four-year institutions in a couple major ways.
First, as Slate notes, Obama’s universal community college plan actually falls short of being universal. If a student’s family earns more than $200,000 per year, then free tuition would be a no-go.
At first glance, that doesn’t sound so bad. After all, most students with significant amounts of loan debt are those from middle and low-income families. Providing free tuition to those who don’t necessarily need it doesn’t look like a winning proposition politically or financially.
It turns out it is a big deal, though. More from an earlier Atlantic piece before news of the income gap broke:
This concern about targeting resources is understandable, but the genius of the Obama proposal lies in its universality. In Tennessee, almost 90 percent of graduating high school seniors have signed up for its new universal community-college program (though officials expect that the actual number of students who will eventually participate will be substantially lower).
… (The) high interest suggests some middle-class and wealthy families whose children would have otherwise attended four-year colleges may be giving two-year institutions a second look. While some argue that free tuition for upper- and middle-class students is a waste of resources, in fact it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that community colleges are socioeconomically integrated. We have known since Brown v. Board of Education that separate educational institutions for black and white—or for poor and rich—are rarely equal.
Today, there is an enormous degree of economic stratification in higher education. According to research by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University, wealthy students outnumber poor students at the most selective four-year colleges by 14 to one, while community colleges educate twice as many low-income students as high-income students. Moreover, their research finds that, between 1982 and 2006, the proportion of students from the richest quarter of the population attending community colleges has declined, while those attending from the poorest quarter has increased.
In other words, preventing upper-middle class and upper-class students from receiving free tuition at a community college might only serve to further the gap between the haves and the have-nots in America. Furthermore, having wealthier Americans on the side of a program that serves to benefit all Americans, not just the rich, is never a bad idea in the post-Citizens United world. In a political world ruled by money, it would be smart to have richer Americans feel the need to push state legislatures and the federal government to ensure community college budgets don’t get slashed further in the future.
Another major problem? Tuition and fees are only one part of the costs of attending any college, including community colleges. In fact, the average community college student would still owe need to spend around $13,000 per year to attend, as the chart above shows.
Tuition and fees counted for just 21 percent of the budget for students who attend two-year public college and pay for off-campus housing, according to a recent study from College Board. While the average tuition and fees at a community college is $3,347 for the 2014-2015 academic year, housing cost another $7,705, books averaged $1,328 and transportation added up to $1,735. Keep in mind, too, that Obama’s plan also doesn’t cover fees, which schools routinely charge for using labs, campus health centers and computer labs.
Students at community colleges could save money on housing by living at home, but that’s not an option available to everyone. There is also a good chance that low-income students could qualify for federal Pell Grants that would cover whatever is left over after the government pays tuition, but again not everyone is eligible. Many students could still wind up working full time or taking out loans, albeit smaller amounts, to pay the difference.
Simply put, Obama’s free community college plan falls well short of actually providing free community college. And while it is admirable in its goals and should be debated and voted upon, more needs to be done to address the costs of higher education and to reform the nation’s broken student loan system.