Hey high school graduates, the leader of the free world wants to pass something by you.
I can say, with no uncertain terms, that college is expensive. Like really, REALLY expensive. Take it from someone who just paid their student loans off a year or two ago, the cost of higher education – and more importantly the loans being taken out to pay for it – have become a concern to many over the last few years. While various solutions have been proposed, President Obama has put forth an idea that really could change how we look at higher education. His plan? Make the first two years of community college be paid for by the government, similar to how K-12 education currently works. But is this actually viable? Here’s The Straight Dope on the matter.
- As said before, President Obama’s proposal to offer two free years of community college for those seeking higher education would work similar to how K-12 education works currently in this country. Government backed K-12 education is universal for all members of society, whether you’re wealthy or financially distressed. Granted the quality of K-12 education can greatly vary depending on where you live – for example higher property tax areas tend to have better school districts – but make no mistake, the idea of universal higher education in the US is an interesting one!
- Many have commented that the most radical part of President Obama’s higher education proposal would be that the first two years of community college would be free. But the idea of the government flipping the bill for higher education isn’t exactly new. While the cost of higher education at a four-year university is extremely expensive, the cost for attending a community college has always been manageable. Also for the poorest students, tuition has always been covered under financial aid provided by the federal government, even going as far to pay for living expenses (which would not be included in President Obama’s plan). Programs such as Pell Grants have always existed for those individuals that want a higher education, but can’t afford to do so.
- Not to harp too much on this, but this distinction is a very important point. President Obama’s plan would only pay for college tuition. Nothing else. In a recent study by the College Board, they found tuition only counts for 21 percent of an average student’s annual budget. The majority of costs, for an average college student, came from books, housing, and other institutional fees (computer lab fees, campus health center access, ect).
- The more interesting aspect of President Obama’s community college proposal comes in the fact that it would be universal to anyone interested in higher education. That would include wealthy and middle-class Americans. Considering a third of all college students currently attend community college – that would be over 6 million people (!!!) – under President Obama’s plan they would all have their tuition paid for by the government. That ends up being an amazing deal for many students that wouldn’t qualify for other financial aid programs.
- President Obama’s community college proposal has been done before on a smaller scale. In a program called Tennessee Promise, the state of Tennessee will offer free community college tuition to high school graduates as long as certain goals are met (GPA over 2.0, perform community service, ect). Tennessee expected about 20,000 students to sign up for this program, it ended up being around 58,000. That’s almost 90% of all high school graduates for that year! However the question was never whether more students would try and go to college because of Tennessee Promise – of course they would, they made it free!! – the bigger question is how many of these students would stick with the program and complete their 2-year degree? Since the program started this year, it’s too early to tell if Tennessee Promise will have any lasting effects on the state’s higher education system.
- And now for the coup d’etat of all questions, how does President Obama plan on passing this in a Congress that is controlled by the GOP? There is no way on Earth the GOP would ever rally behind this idea. President Obama’s proposal would easily cost the government hundreds of millions, which the Republicans have strongly said they would not do. It would need a major miracle for this to pass either the House or Senate. Hey anyone know what Sen. Ted Cruz is up to?
- Now with all that said, President Obama’s proposal could cause a major sea change in how Americans look at higher education. Free universal education that expands past K-12 is a radical idea! If the response to Tennessee Promise is to be believed, more people will definitely sign up for two-year colleges, that looks to be a given. Whether people follow through and get their degree, that remains to be seen.
(Photo Credit: WhiteHouse.gov, Pinterest, Pew Research Center)