Last week, President Obama announced an ambitious proposal that would make the first two years of a community college free to many students. This announcement comes at a time when there is growing national anxiety about the rising costs of college and the increased indebtedness of students. Now that more details have come out, here are some first thoughts:

  • The message of free college is great. In terms of college access, the proposal offers a wonderful opportunity to tell prospective college students that there is an affordable college option open to them if they meet very basic eligibility requirements such as maintaining a 2.5 GPA and enrolling at least half time. While the program could be better-targeted to focus on the needs of low-income students, both low-income and middle-income students feel the squeeze of high tuition prices. Both groups stand to benefit by knowing well ahead of time that college is within their financial reach.
  • This creates an important federal-state partnership. As our colleague Ben Miller wrote over at TPM, the real revolutionary nature of the proposal is the implication for states. According to the fact sheet released by the White House, federal funding would cover 75 percent of the average tuition and fees of attending a community college. States would be expected to kick in the rest. If a state has low community college tuition compared to the average, then it wouldn’t have to kick in much. But if a state has much higher tuition and fees than average, it would be on the hook for much more. In addition, the Obama Administration is making a play into performance-based funding by requiring that participating states allocate a significant portion of funding based on performance, not enrollment alone. So it would seem that in order to participate in the proposed program, a state would have to restructure the way it’s currently allocating its higher education funding.
  • For-profits and nonprofits in particular won’t like the proposal. One thing is for certain, free tuition and fees at community colleges means that many students would likely consider a community college as their first option compared to pricier for-profits, nonprofits, and even expensive public four-year options. If students start flocking to community colleges instead of higher-priced institutions, it could create more price competition in students’ favor at other institutions (including public four-year schools). But an important question to ask is: What would the increase in community college enrollment mean for those two-year colleges already at or near capacity?
  • Little has been mentioned about the American Technical Training Fund, another part of the proposal. Modeled after technical training centers in Tennessee and Texas, this discretionary grant program would support the start-up of 100 similar centers and scale those efforts in succeeding years. It is definitely encouraging to see the Administration paying attention to the training and credential needs of low-wage workers. The emphasis on college completion can sometimes drown out the real need to create more pathways into middle-skills jobs for Americans who may not want a four-year degree. The Administration’s recent review of effective job training programs highlighted the effectiveness of sector strategies, industry partnerships, and career pathway approaches.  But colleges often lack funds to stand up and operate these programs and, with the end of the TAACCCT grant program, the funding landscape is even bleaker.  The Training Fund could be a way to continue that important work. At least, we can hope.
  • Don’t expect Congress to pass the proposal. This proposal will take Congressional approval. Given the current climate in Congress, don’t expect this proposal to happen anytime soon. Although Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tn) will be at President Obama’s official announcement of the program this afternoon, he has already released a statement alluding to the fact that instead of creating a new federal program, states should create and manage their own free college programs. He mentions that it would be better for students if the federal government focused on simplifying the FAFSA and expand Pell.
  • In a way, putting colleges on notice has started changing institutional and state behavior. In his 2012 State of the Union, President Obama put colleges on notice. He said, “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher Education can’t be a luxury—it’s an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.” In the years that followed we’ve seen new moves towards increased accountability in higher education. Though Gainful Employment and the college ratings system (known as PIRS) are on perilous footing, they have opened very important conversations about the value of college. Now this proposal calls for a very affordable college option for all students by creating a federal and state partnership. The proposal may not pass Congress, but it will make waves and continue to push institutions and states to offer more affordable higher education options.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Rachel Fishman

Rachel Fishman is a policy analyst for the New America Foundation Education Policy Program.