Throughout life, you will hear the phrases “nothing is free” or “you get what you pay for” many times. For instance, when the gold fish you won at the state fair dies two days after you bought a new fish tank and a year’s supply of fish food, inevitably you share the story and someone will say “well, you get what you pay for.” Then, if you are like most of us, you start to feel a little jaded. What good is "free" if there are no set expectations? Apply these phrases and this scenario to President Obama’s free community college tuition plan and I hope it causes you to pause and think the way it did for me. Is this a worthwhile investment at the federal level?
First of all, it is not a secret that affordability has always been an issue in higher education especially for low-income students. It’s also not a secret that education is necessary especially within a growing global economy. So based on these two pieces of information, a federally proposed free community college tuition program should be the solution this nation has been looking for. But at the expense of being labeled a pessimist, there are some very real issues that need to be addressed.
America’s College Promise appears to require a lot of moving parts to ensure the program benefits high school graduates and ultimately leads to an educated, diverse workforce that can meet the needs of a changing global economy. All in all, the proposal makes a lot of assumptions, such as:
- All high school graduates possess the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be successful for their first two years of community college and therefore, will not need remedial courses.
- All high school graduates can earn a 2.5 grade point average in college, if they do not need to worry about paying tuition.
- All high school graduates are sufficiently self-motivated and will complete an associate’s degree in two years, if they do not need to worry about paying tuition.
- All high school graduates take responsibility for their education, provided they are not in a position to worry about paying tuition.
- All community colleges need to strengthen their programs.
- All community colleges can implement immediate processes and procedures to raise graduation rates and up until now were just not motivated to do so.
- All community colleges want to be the exact same across all 50 states.
- All states have money to invest in a federally run program with little or no say in necessary changes or improvements.
- The federal government is capable of implementing a free community college tuition program regardless of individual state populations and challenges they face.
- The federal government has excess monetary reserves to support and ensure that strategic plans are in place for continued sustainability of the program.
While there are fundamental characteristics everyone would like to see in higher education such as consistency, options, affordability, and accessibility, does America’s College Promise provide students with enough “skin in the game” to work well?
If we all stop and think about it, we tend to take care of and prioritize those items that we had to work for, participate in, or contribute to before we could take advantage of the benefits. When we go to work, we have a job that needs to get done in order to earn a paycheck. If this doesn’t happen, then bills won’t get paid. We have skin in the game. We work a little harder. We are pushed a little further and as a result accomplish things we didn’t know were possible. We have a stake in the outcome.
America’s College Promise is marketed as being similar to the Tennessee Promise, but so far the programs have little in common. The Tennessee Promise requires students to maintain satisfactory academic progress or, generally, a 2.0 grade point average. Students have five semesters to complete their associate’s degree which addresses the reality that almost 70% of students are required to complete remedial courses during their first year of college. Finally, students in Tennessee who participate in the program are required to complete eight hours of community service each semester. So there, in the last eligibility bullet is the advantage of this program for Tennessee. Students give back to their state while earning a postsecondary degree which ensures a growing educated workforce.
This blog post is not in opposition to free higher education opportunities. In fact, there are several U.S. institutions that already offer free tuition. It is a blog post focused on asking readers to think about the implications of a federally implemented free community college tuition program. The reality is a federally run program cannot account for all the variables. In order to be effective, a free tuition program should begin at the state-level to best serve the needs of resident students. One of the many strengths of the U.S. higher education system is its diversity. The freedom to meet students’ needs in a variety of ways. There are students who need financial support, this is true, but mostly students need options in order to choose the best path for them to pursue their educational goals when they are ready. Students will find throughout life, in order to be successful, you always need a little “skin in the game.”
After last night’s State of the Union Address, what are your thoughts on America’s College Promise?