A White House proposal may alter this typical scene at a community college: students getting their financial accounts in order at the start of the semester.
President Barack Obama announced that he wants to make community colleges completely “free for everybody who is willing to work for it.” Obama proposed the idea following several states’ decisions to offer a free community college education to residents. The proposal, titled America’s College Promise, is a plan to provide students of any age enrollment in a community college without paying for tuition. Students must maintain a GPA of 2.5 and be registered full-time or half-time to be eligible.
If the proposal becomes law, states will have to choose to participate in the plan and their community colleges will need to offer occupational training programs as well as courses that transfer to four-year universities. Congress would cover 75% of the expected costs for tuition and states would pay the rest. “As a college, we support it 100%,” said NVCC Dean of Student Services Sarah Gager.
Obama said he wants community college to be accessible to everyone. Just as elementary schools and high schools are free for students, he believes community colleges should also be. Getting more people an associate’s degree will increase employment rates and will allow the United States to be competitive with other countries such as England or Germany which already offer a free college education.
Critics of the proposal argue that the plan only covers tuition, which is not a community college student’s largest expense. Off-campus housing, transportation and textbooks all add up to a higher cost than the average full-time community college student’s tuition. “We have approximately 5,500 students awarded for the aid year between fall and spring,” says Catherine Hardy, NVCC’s Financial Aid Director. Pell grants and federal financial aid are currently in place to cover students’ tuition and textbooks, if applicable, so some say that the current plan will not help students any more than what is already being done.
“The first question that comes to my mind is, Where is this money coming from?” says James Hallowell, an NVCC nursing student. “Middle class families are already stretched too thin, and I see this proposal only furthering the gap between the wealthy and the middle class due to higher taxes.”
The White House plans to create a tax credit to finance the program.
“I believe that if our country is to remain competitive, we need to offer the same educational opportunity to our students that European and other first world countries do,” says Mary Ann Fontaine, Director of the Job Placement Center at NVCC.
The requirement for eligibility is a 2.5 GPA, which is a C+ average. Some feel that this requirement is too low and could decrease motivation in students. Raising the bar would inspire younger students to live up to their full potential and a lower GPA requirement could lead to mediocrity.
“College should be free for those who work for it,’ says Matthew Steponaitis, an environmental sciences major at NVCC. “I think it should be a tier system. For example, if you get an ‘A’ everything should be paid for; if you get a ‘B’ less should be covered and so forth.”
During the State of the Union in January, President Obama spoke of the students the program would impact: “Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market.”
Clearly, colleges like ours are enjoying the political limelight. NVCC President Daisy Cocco De Filippis was Connecticut Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty’s guest at the State of the Union. Speaker of the House John Boehner invited an Ohio community college president as his guest. “Above all, it is the recognition of community colleges and the need to support the students,” says President De Filippis of being selected as a guest for the event.
“This State of the Union was about values, about families, about childcare; it was about responding to the needs of the middle class and the working people, and understanding that this country’s economy is not going to move unless we help people get an education,” says President De Filippis.
The White House expects that nine million students will benefit from this plan if all of the states participate. “By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education,” President Obama said, “And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need.” To follow the initiative’s progress, visit whitehouse.gov