Obama's Free College Plan

February 22, 2015

In three readings and discussion, students examine President Obama's proposal for free community college, weigh arguments for and against it, learn about the historical significance of community colleges, and consider the question, "Should all higher education be free?"   

 

To The Teacher:


In January 2015, President Obama announced a plan - dubbed "America's College Promise" - to make two years of community college free to any high school graduate with a C+ average who attends school at least half time. The White House projects that the plan could benefit as many as 9 million students each year, saving them an average of $3,800 annually.

Community colleges have long been an affordable option for students seeking higher education, a place where they get vocational training or build up credits that they can transfer to a four-year institution that provides a bachelor's degree. However, the cost of higher education in the United States has risen dramatically in the past decades. And the cost of community college has also become prohibitive for many potential students. The president's proposal seeks to address this.
 
This lesson consists of three student readings. The first reading takes a closer look at President Obama's proposal and considers some of the arguments for and against it. The second reading looks at the historical significance of community colleges in the U.S. The third reading considers the question, "Should all higher education be free?" Questions for discussion follow each reading.
 

 

Reading 1:
Free Community College

 
In January 2015, President Obama announced a plan, dubbed "America's College Promise," to make two years of community college free to any high school graduate with a C+ average who attends school at least half time. The plan is based on a program already in place in Tennessee called "Tennessee Promise." The program - enacted by a Republican governor - has been extremely popular in the state.
 
Community colleges have long been an affordable option for students seeking higher education, a place where they get vocational training or build up credits that they can transfer to a four-year institution that provides a bachelor's degree. However, the cost of higher education in the United States has risen dramatically in the past decades. And the cost of community college has also become prohibitive for many potential students. The president's proposal seeks to address this.
 
President Obama laid out his vision for America's College Promise in a January 9, 2015 speech at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee. He said:
 
[T]oday I’m announcing an ambitious new plan to bring down the cost of community college tuition in America. I want to bring it down to zero... Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it - because in America, a quality education cannot be a privilege that is reserved for a few. I think it’s a right for everybody who’s willing to work for it....
 
There are no free rides in America. You would have to earn it. Students would have to do their part by keeping their grades up. Colleges would have to do their part by offering high-quality academics and helping students actually graduate. States would have to do their part too. This isn’t a blank check. It’s not a free lunch. But for those willing to do the work, and for states and local communities that want to be a part of this, it can be a game-changer.
 
Think about it: Students who started at community colleges during those two years, and then go on to a four-year institution, they essentially get the first half of their bachelor’s degree for free. People who enroll for skills training will graduate already ready to work, and they won’t have a pile of student debt. Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today.
 
 
The White House projects that the plan could benefit as many as 9 million students each year, saving them an average of $3,800 annually. Nevertheless, the president's proposal has drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers in Congress, mainly for its price tag. As Julie Glum reports in a January 9, 2015, article for the International Business Times:
 
House Speaker John Boehner was not impressed. "With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan," his spokesman Cory Fritz said in a statement. Some news outlets estimated the effort would cost roughly $15 billion a year....
 
The proposal is based on the Tennessee Promise, which gives Tennessee high school seniors two free years at any state community college or technical school. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., supported the Tennessee Promise but expressed frustration about the president's potentially pricey plan. "While the White House says that three-quarters of the program would be paid for with federal funding, I have yet to hear what offsets, if any, would be proposed to ensure Americans are not saddled with greater debt and deficits as a result," she said in a statement.  
 
Defenders of the president's proposal note, however, dispute these notions. As Daily Beast columnist Jonathan Alter argues in a January 24, 2015 article, the cost of America's College Promise is hardly exorbitant when put in context:
 
The more basic arguments against the president’s idea don’t hold up under inspection. The first is cost: $60 billion over 10 years. That’s not chump change, but it isn’t as prohibitive as some of the post-State of the Union commentators suggested. It’s less than five percent of what we’ve spent in the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is restoring the middle class and preparing this country to compete internationally really less important?
 
The second major argument is that free college is another entitlement - a dirty word nowadays. We’ll be locked into paying for two years of college forever, we’re told. The same argument could have been used against Social Security, the GI Bill and Medicare, all of which were enacted before the pejorative "entitlements" came into common usage. Entitlements become problematic when their provisions are set in stone and their costs spiral out of control, neither of which need be inevitable. To guard against the budgetary miscalculations that have plagued other landmark programs, we’ll need regulations that prevent huge tuition increases.
 
 
While it will be difficult for America's College Promise to pass Congress, the Obama administration has said that placing the issue of free higher education into the national discourse is in itself a victory. A January 15, 2015, New York Times editorial concludes by noting an interesting historical parallel:
 
The skepticism that has greeted Mr. Obama’s proposal in some quarters has overtones of the skepticism that greeted 19th-century educators when they began to agitate for free, universal public high schools. Their efforts proved crucial at a time when the country was moving away from farming and toward a world in which reading, writing and reasoning would be critical. Expanded access to community college could do the same thing for the country in the information age.
 
 

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. What is President Obama's argument in favor of making community college free?
  1. Why do critics of America's College Promise oppose the plan?
  1. What do you think of this debate? What arguments do you find most compelling?
  1. How would the price tag of America's College Promise compare with other items in the U.S. federal budget? What you think of these spending priorities?
 

 

Reading 2:
Community Colleges in American History


Since the early 1900s, community colleges- once commonly referred to as junior colleges - have provided an important path to higher education for many Americans. Today, "community college" is primarily used to refer to a two-year institution that is publicly funded and draws students from its surrounding community. According to the Community College Research Center, as of the 2012-2013 school year, 45 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States—a total of 7.7 million students—are enrolled in community colleges.
 
The American Association of Community Colleges, the main governing body and advocacy organization for community colleges, details the history of community college:
 
Great challenges faced the United States in the early 20th century, including global economic competition. National and local leaders realized that a more skilled workforce was key to the country's continued economic strength - a need that called for a dramatic increase in college attendance - yet three-quarters of high school graduates were choosing not to further their education, in part because they were reluctant to leave home for a distant college. 
 
During the same period, the country's rapidly growing public high schools were seeking new ways to serve their communities. It was common for them to add a teacher institute, manual learning (vocational education) division, or citizenship school to the diploma program. The high school-based community college, as first developed at Central High School in Joliet, Illinois, was the most successful type of addition. Meanwhile, small, private colleges such as Indiana's Vincennes University had fashioned an effective model of higher education grounded on the principles of small classes, close student-faculty relations and a program that included both academics and extracurricular activities. 
 
From the combination of these traditions emerged the earliest community colleges, roughly balanced in number between private and public control but united in their commitment to meet local needs.
 

In his speech announcing America's College Promise, President Obama underscored the historical role of community colleges in making higher education more widely attainable:
 
For millions of Americans, community colleges are essential pathways to the middle class because they’re local, they’re flexible. They work for people who work full-time. They work for parents who have to raise kids full-time. They work for folks who have gone as far as their skills will take them and want to earn new ones, but don’t have the capacity to just suddenly go study for four years and not work. Community colleges work for veterans transitioning back into civilian life. Whether you’re the first in your family to go to college, or coming back to school after many years away, community colleges find a place for you. And you can get a great education.
 
And that’s what community colleges are all about - the idea that no one with drive and discipline should be left out, should be locked out of opportunity, and certainly that nobody with that drive and discipline should be denied a college education just because they don’t have the money. Every American, whether they’re young or just young at heart, should be able to earn the skills and education necessary to compete and win in the 21st century economy.
 

Since their inception, community colleges have played a positive role in the lives of millions of students that they have served. In a January 14, 2015 op-ed for the New York Times, Academy Award winning actor Tom Hanks discussed the importance of community colleges in his own life. He wrote:
 
In 1974, I graduated from Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif., an underachieving student with lousy SAT scores. Allowed to send my results to three colleges, I chose M.I.T. and Villanova, knowing such fine schools would never accept a student like me but hoping they’d toss some car stickers my way for taking a shot. I couldn’t afford tuition for college anyway. I sent my final set of stats to Chabot, a community college in nearby Hayward, Calif., which, because it accepted everyone and was free, would be my alma mater.
 
For thousands of commuting students, Chabot was our Columbia, Annapolis, even our Sorbonne, offering courses in physics, stenography, auto mechanics, certified public accounting, foreign languages, journalism — name the art or science, the subject or trade, and it was probably in the catalog. The college had a nursing program that churned out graduates, sports teams that funneled athletes to big-time programs, and parking for a few thousand cars — all free but for the effort and the cost of used textbooks.
 
Classmates included veterans back from Vietnam, women of every marital and maternal status returning to school, middle-aged men wanting to improve their employment prospects and paychecks. We could get our general education requirements out of the way at Chabot -  credits we could transfer to a university -  which made those two years an invaluable head start. I was able to go on to the State University in Sacramento (at $95 a semester, just barely affordable) and study no other subject but my major, theater arts. (After a year there I moved on, enrolling in a little thing called the School of Hard Knocks, a.k.a. Life.)...
 
President Obama hopes to make two years of free community college accessible for up to nine million Americans. I’m guessing the new Congress will squawk at the $60 billion price tag, but I hope the idea sticks, because more veterans, from Iraq and Afghanistan this time, as well as another generation of mothers, single parents and workers who have been out of the job market, need lower obstacles between now and the next chapter of their lives. High school graduates without the finances for a higher education can postpone taking on big loans and maybe luck into the class that will redefine their life’s work. Many lives will be changed.
 
 
In a country that is increasingly defined by a widening gap between the wealthy and the rest of American society, community colleges remain an important source of educational opportunity.
 
 

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. Historically, what have community colleges offered that other institutions of higher learning in the United States have not?
  1. Do you know people who have attended community college? What has their experience been?
  1. Actor Tom Hanks credits a community college with making a significant impact in his life. Do you think his experience is typical? Why or why not?
  1. The reading mentions a growing wealth gap between the rich and the middle class in America. Do you think community college is a means of addressing this gap? Why or why not?
 

 

Reading 3:
Should All Higher Education Be Free?

 
President Obama's plan to make two years of community college free for anyone who meets a few basic requirements has won praise from many education advocates. The announcement has also opened up a wider conversation about the costs of higher education in the United States. While community colleges are a good start, shouldn't all college be free?
 
In many different parts of the world, higher education is far more affordable than in the United States. While it may seem inconceivable to many Americans, free universities have been the norm in many industrialized nations.
 
As reporter Kelsey Sheehy writes for US News & World Report:
 
Average tuition and fees at public colleges and universities in the U.S. was close to $8,400 in 2013-2014 for students studying in their home state and nearly $19,100 for those paying out-of-state tuition, according to data reported to U.S. News in an annual survey. At private colleges, the average sticker price is nearly $30,500.
 
By comparison, tuition is free at public universities in countries(link is external) such as Argentina, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. ...
 
"It is quite unfathomable for most Europeans that you would start your adult life tens of thousands of dollars in debt," says [Karen] Oberle, who researched higher education systems in countries such as the U.K., Hungary, Argentina and Turkmenistan for her book "College Abroad."
 
"People always seem stunned that the American system even sustains itself under the current conditions," she says.
 
 
Even with much lower tuition, European students often still incur some debt to cover the cost of living expenses and books. Nevertheless, their debt burden is far lighter than that of most U.S. students.
 
Although free universities in the United States might seem unrealistic, it would be within the power of elected officials to enact if there was the political will to do so. According to Jordan Weissman at The Atlantic magazine, it would cost the United States $62.6 billion dollars per year to make all public institutions free for undergraduates. Weissman argues that most, if not all, of that amount could be covered by redirecting money currently spent on Pell Grants, education-based tax breaks, and work study programs into a more efficient free system.
 
Even if it required additional spending, the $62 billion dollar figure represents only a small fraction of the money spent by the government in other areas. Currently, the U.S. military budget is at roughly $756 billion per year, meaning that a 9% cut in defense spending would be sufficient to cover the cost of a free public university system.
 
As critics in the group Strike Debt have noted, the money spent on 10 years of war with Iraq and Afghanistan would have been sufficient to make higher education at every two- and four-year public university in the United States completely free for the next 52 years.
 
What’s more, argue advocates, free higher education would provide long-term economic benefits for the country. Ultimately, they say, the cost of providing it would more than pay for itself. A congressional study found that the original GI bill, which provided free college education for veterans returning from WWII, was one of the best investments the U.S. government ever made, returning $7 to the economy for every $1 spent. 
 
The U.S. is not the only country where people are debating government spending priorities. In the wake of the recent economic crisis, the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, has mandated steep cuts to public spending to reduce budget deficits. This policy, known as austerity, has put low-cost higher education at risk in many European countries. In response to proposed cuts to university budgets, students in countries including the UK, France, Portugal, Sweden, and Bulgaria have protested austerity measures with marches, walkouts, strikes, and occupations.
 
In other parts of the world too, people are protesting rising tuition fees. In Chile, a street artist named "Papas Fritas" burned student debt papers worth roughly $500 million to protest for-profit universities that trick students into shouldering excessive loans.
 
Free higher education is possible in the United States and elsewhere- if citizens demand it.
 
 

For Discussion:

 
1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
 
2. How does the United States compare with other industrialized countries in terms of funding higher education? What values and priorities do these social policies reflect? 
 
3. According to the reading, systems of free and low-cost higher education in other parts of the world are under attack. Why? How have students responded?
 
4. Do you think that the U.S. should make public college education free? Why or why not? 
 
5. Do you think that free higher education could become a reality in the United States? What do you think it would take for this to happen?