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Patrick R. Riccards's picture
For more than two decades, Patrick has worked at the intersection of education policy, research, and communications. He previously served as chief of staff to the National Reading Panel and as...
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Free College, With Major Questions

Last week, President Barack Obama traveled to Tennessee to officially unveil his “America’s College Promise” initiative. In visiting the Volunteer State, President Obama pledged to provide two years of community college free for “responsible” students, seeking to build off a similar effort the state had already launched for Tennessee residents.

In the coming weeks and months, we will undoubtedly start seeing more details on the proposal and how it will affect real students, real families, real colleges, and real states across the nation. In broad strokes, the President made broad promises. Two years of free college. Greater state investment in higher education and training. Better grades for students. But the proposal was light on specifics. We know that students must be at least half-time students, must maintain 2.5 GPAs, and must be making steady progress toward completing a program to get free college. States must promise to pick up a portion of the cost, while also pledging that all credits earned at community college would count at a four-year institution after transfer.

The excitement of the concept of free college leaves far more questions than we have answers, though. Setting aside the multi-billion-dollar question of how the federal government (and the states) will actually pay for it, America’s College Promise raises a great number of both strategic and logistical questions, such as:

  • What happens to dual-enrollment programs led by K-12 school districts? Will these programs remain popular if two years at community college will be free? Will high school students have to pay to enroll in dual-credit programs? Or is it the beginning of the end of the “formal” senior year of high school?

  • Whither proprietary colleges? Will more students opt for free community college or career programs, turning away from the programs offered by for-profit institutions? Is this a way for the U.S. Department of Education to address proprietary colleges without having to mess with gainful employment regulations?

  • Will this be coupled with any efforts to improve the quality and value of a two-year degree? Is there incentive for community colleges to improve and innovate, now that applicant pools will undoubtedly increase?

  • Is this really an investment in higher education or are we moving the goal line, saying that grade 14 is now the goal, rather than grade 12, to be “college ready?”

  • Along those same lines, do we expect two years of community college to be the pipeline into a four-year degree, or is the two-year degree seen as a new terminal degree in higher ed?

  • Will a greater emphasis on community colleges result in a decrease in full-time professors at four-year institutions, particularly at non-research universities, ultimately transforming professors from being loyal to a single institution to “free agent” teachers who work with an even greater number of institutions to assemble full-time employment?

  • What happens with states like Tennessee that are already headed down this path? Can they continue to move ahead or will they be expected to adjust their “free college” efforts to meet new federal regulations?

  • If more students are directed to community colleges as part of this effort, what is the impact on Pell funding? Will we see a federal reduction in Pell commitment to four-year institutions? And will two years of free college reduce total Pell eligibility?

  • Is this new initiative intended only for traditional community colleges, or will it also include virtual institutions of higher education? If a student is attending an online program, how will one determine if he or she is at least a half-time student?

  • Similarly, will competency-based programs qualify for this program, particularly if a student is not necessarily putting in the seat time but is demonstrating the mastery of the subject matter to obtain a two-year degree?

  • Are we putting the emphasis in the right place? Is it more beneficial to our nation’s educational and economic strength to offer two free years of community college or $10,000 bachelor’s degrees in every state?

There is no question that higher education is in desperate need of innovation and must improve access. College costs for students (better known as the customers) have risen at astronomical rates over the past two decades. At the same time, quality has not necessarily improved, with too many programs and too many institutions—proprietary and traditional—offering students degrees that have little value when it comes to getting or keeping a good job.

We’ve also seen remedial education rates continue to rise, with some saying more than half of all students entering postsecondary education are now taking remedial math or English. This suggests that community colleges are largely spending time on correcting deficiencies of the K-12 system and not necessarily on serving as a true gateway to higher learning.

The answers to the questions above, and the many other queries that are coming from those studying this new plan, will be important in determining the future of America’s College Promise. Will this be another good idea that only gets tossed aside because it lacks the funding and the changes it calls for are too hard (or too ambiguous) for institutions and policymakers to take on? Or is it just the innovation needed to begin to shake up higher education policy and place greater power and focus on the students, and not just on the institutions?

Only time will tell.