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Will President Obama’s ‘America’s College Promise’ proposal survive?

By Dr. Chris Duree, IVCCD Chancellor

In January, President Obama delivered a bold proposal entitled “America’s College Promise: Tuition-Free Community College for Responsible Students.” Needless to say, the proposal caused a ripple effect of seismic proportions.

President Obama’s basic philosophical premise is based on the idea that the first two years of college should be as free as attending a public K-12 education system. In simplest terms, he is asking community colleges to strengthen their programs and increase the number of students who graduate. States will be asked to invest more in higher education and training, and students will be required to take responsibility for their education by earning good grades and staying on track to graduate.

As simple as the basic concepts may appear, the “devil will be in the details” and there are many practical questions to be answered. Currently, this is what we know:

  • The proposal will require a federal/state partnership to eliminate tuition in “selected community college programs” with a 75 percent funding commitment from the federal budget and 25 percent funding commitment from participating states. The federal/state funding combination would be used to cover tuition which, in turn, would free-up other funding (such as Pell Grants and Stafford Loans) to be used for the auxiliary expenses of attending college.
  • Students must enroll in “eligible” programs – currently defined as academic programs transferable to four-year institutions or occupational training programs that have high completion rates in “high demand fields.”
  • First-time students would be eligible for three years. They must be enrolled half-time time or greater, maintain 2.5 GPA, and have a family household income of less than $200,000.
  • Participating community colleges must adopt reform initiatives to support student completion.
  • States have to agree to participate to be eligible, provide matching funds, and “engage in certain specific policies, including adoption of a performance-based funding model.”
  • The project will span 10 years and is estimated to cost $63 billion, which represents 8 percent of the U.S. Department of Education budget (which, in turn, is approximately 3 percent of all federal expenditures).

President Obama is to be commended for offering an ambitious proposal that attempts to open the dialogue around the rising costs and inequities of attending college. If the plan can survive the political gauntlet, the long-range ramifications remain unknown. However, the door has been opened for tough and long overdue conversations to begin. We can only hope the end result is positive change to a system that has plenty of room for improvement.

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