Editorial: Free community college is a step in the right direction

Editorial Board

On Jan. 9, President Obama proposed a government program that would make community college tuition free for students who are willing to “work for it.” Obama hopes the program will expand higher education opportunities throughout the country.

What Obama is proposing has already been implemented in Tennessee and the city of Chicago. Both have seen their successes with the respective programs. The Tennessee Promise, the program which funds free community college through state lottery funds, saw 58,000 applicants so far. That number is nearly 90 percent graduating seniors in the state.

More than twice the expected number of applicants has proven to Obama that the program can function on a national level. The plan is for 75 percent of the tuition funding to come from the federal level and the state governments would pick up the other 25 percent.

However, a number of questions have been raised when talking about what “free” really means.

“Governors worried this 75 percent could diminish over time then face the unenviable scenario where they’re portrayed as the Grinch for failing to continue to shoulder the expensive cost of college, especially for wealthier students who don’t need the support,” wrote Carrie Sheffield, a contributor for Forbes Online.

Another issue was that with the Tennessee Promise, the funding comes from the state lottery. However, according to the Sheffield, lower-income families are more likely to spend money on the lottery, creating higher-income family subsidization.

“…this scenario ends up being Robin Hood in reverse: Poorer families are more likely to play and spend more of their income on the lottery than richer ones, and thus they subsidize richer, whiter students, who are more likely to apply for the college money,” Scheffield said.

The New York Times also reported Jan. 8 that nothing else has been released in terms of how the national program will be funded, beside the 75/25 percent split. One of the stipulations to prevent the value of a four-year university from falling is requiring the community colleges to offer programs that do one of the following: Fully transfer to a local public four-year college and university so they can earn a four-year degree, or offer technical skills courses with high graduation rates that lead to degrees and certificates of high demand occupations.

With nearly every decision the government makes, there will always be pros and cons to the situation. When looking at the overall plan of what Obama hopes to accomplish with this free community college plan, the pros outweigh the cons. A step in the direction of making higher education more available and more affordable for graduating high school seniors is a step in the right direction.

It does not go without saying there are many pros and cons to be assessed with this program. While the success in Tennessee Promise is still being determined, the very fact the state was able to implement such an idea into a tangible mean is encouraging.

The plan is nearly dead before it even enters the heavily Republican Congress. But Obama is taking strides to bring the United States up to par with European education. We were once at the forefront of higher education but have since fallen off the wagon. Now the nations of Europe and Asia surpass our American schools nearly every category. As student debt levels have soared in recent years, the relative value of a college education has diminished. This program will certainly not be the final step in solving student debt or in providing education for the most Americans, but there are, few if any, better places to start. With the first two years of a college-level education under students’ belts, we can get back to being an international leader in one of the most crucial categories.