Free community college splits Iowa lawmakers

Alex Hanson

Most ISU students can only dream of free tuition, but it could be a reality for peers who attend community colleges after President Obama proposed the first two years of community college should be free for “those willing to work for it.”

However, lawmakers in Iowa are split on the idea.

The proposal, which was first announced in Knoxville, Tenn. and then laid out during Obama’s State of the Union speech, would allow students who attend community colleges at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 GPA to have their tuition paid in full. The White House said the plan would require community colleges to allow programs to transfer to four-year schools and that the colleges would need to admit more students.

“I’ve long said that community colleges are the principle intersection between education and workforce development,” said U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, who is the only Democrat left in Iowa’s Congressional Delegation. “I think if we are going to succeed in a 21st Century global economy, we’ve got to do everything we can to ensure that everyone who wants to go to college has access to high-quality education.”

The White House has said the program could help as many as nine million students and save them an average of $3,800 per year.

“The community college system has worked well for a long period [of] time. It evolved to meet the needs in each community, so each college provides students with the skills local employers need, and students have jobs waiting for them when they graduate,” said U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

However, Republicans reminded Americans that the program would cost them in some ways.

“The President’s proposal would have the Department of Education determining which programs would qualify, which would lead to federal government intervention in community colleges and undermine the local autonomy that’s made the colleges successful,” Grassley said.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, echoed Grassley’s comments.

“Community colleges are an important part of educating our students and providing job skills training that is needed in industries all across Iowa and the country,” Ernst said. “However, when looking at President Obama’s proposal, we must be very cautious in claiming that it would provide free community college. The reality is that someone is always paying.”

Like every other federal program, it comes with a price tag. The White House projects that it would cost $60 billion over a decade to fund the program. The plan would call on states to pay for a quarter of the cost, while the federal government would pitch in the rest.

“It’s intriguing. If [Obama] can put money on the table to make it happen, I’d be inclined to see if [Iowa] could pick up our share,” said state Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames. Quirmbach has a chair at the education committee in the Iowa State Senate and is also an associate professor of economics at Iowa State.

“If [the federal government] is going to pick up [three quarters], it would seem to me to be a pretty sweet deal if we only had to pick up [a quarter] of the cost,” Quirmbach said.

Another proposal Obama laid out in his State of the Union speech was a plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. The estimated $320 billion in new revenues would pay for a series of tax breaks for middle-class Americans and would also fund the community college plan.

“I have some issue on how we are going to pay for it. The big problem I have is that it could hurt some middle-class families because it would actually tax the 529 college savings plans,” Loebsack said, referring to a proposal from the Obama administration that would have taxed some college savings accounts.

Obama later dropped his proposal on the 529 savings plans after resistance from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi reportedly lobbied Obama to drop the idea before he officially sent his budget to Congress.

“It didn’t make sense to attack a program that encourages savings,” Grassley said in a statement following the decision. “The tax code encourages all kinds of behavior and saving for college is usually something everybody supports. The President dropping his misguided plan is a victory for common sense.”

Grassley also had concerns about how Obama would propose paying for the program in full, considering “he just dropped one misguided idea — to tax college savings — to help pay for it.”

While both the tax increase and community college proposals look unlikely to pass in the new GOP-controlled Congress, Loebsack was a bit more positive on the prospects of at least debating the idea.

“It’s going to be difficult [to bring it up], no question,” Loebsack said. “But at the same time, there are a lot of community college advocates on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Congress. Members on both sides of the aisle often raise the importance of community colleges, especially when it comes to workforce development.”

Grassley said don’t fix what isn’t broken. 

“I’m skeptical of anything that would undercut what already works in the community college system or undermine the sense of personal responsibility that is so important for student success,” he said. 

Ernst echoed the Republican sentiment that education policies should be up to local control. 

“Reforms in education are most effective at the state and local level,” Ernst said. “Iowa has some great job-training programs in place to meet the needs of our growing state. Community colleges, local governments and businesses across the country should work together to address the labor pools and identify the programs needed to help provide students with a strong skillset for the workforce.”

Either way, Loebsack remains optimistic.

“I think there is a chance to get some [parts] of this through,” Loebsack said.