Obama proposes 2 years of ‘free’ college

President Obama will propose federal funding to support two years of tuition-free community college for students who can maintain a 2.5 grade point average. Obama said the feds would pay three-fourths of tuition, while states would pick up the rest. The full plan should be ready by the State of the Union speech Jan. 20.

President Obama shakes hands before speaking at a  Tennessee community college.

President Obama shakes hands before speaking at a Tennessee community college.

Community college tuition averages $3,800 a year nationwide. In 16 states, it’s less than the federal Pell Grant, which means low-income students pay nothing and have money left over to pay for books and living expenses.

The free-tuition idea started in Tennessee, as I wrote on Community College Spotlight. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam realized the state could afford to fund the “last dollar” of community college tuition, the remnant not not already covered by federal aid. Mississippi, Oregon and Texas legislators have proposed similar plans.

Low-income students get little or no benefit from last-dollar plans, noted Robert Kelchen, a Seton Hall professor, in Inside Higher Ed. Most already pay little or no tuition, but struggle to pay for books, commuting, child care and rent.

Chicago will cover three years of community college tuition for college-ready public school graduates with at least a B average. It’s estimated 85 percent of students’ tuition and fees will be covered by Pell Grants, reports the Chicago Sun-Times.

In every state except New Hampshire and South Dakota, the average tuition and fees at community colleges was lower than the maximum Pell Grant of $5,645 in the 2013-14 academic year. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative sample of students enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, show that 38 percent of community college students had their tuition and fees entirely covered by grant aid. An additional 33 percent of students paid less than $1,000 out of pocket for tuition and fees. Eighty-five percent of Pell recipients at community colleges had sufficient grant aid to cover tuition and fees, meaning they would get no additional money from a “free college” program.

Unlike the Tennessee Promise and the Chicago plan, Obama’s proposal appears to go beyond covering the “last dollar.” But nobody’s quite sure how it will work.

I wonder what would happen to Pell Grants for community college students. Would a low-income student who’s paying no tuition still get the full grant to cover living expenses? That risks creating a “Pellfare” program that incentivizes enrollment but not completion.

Decreasing college costs could encourage more students to go to college — or to choose community college over a state university, notes the Washington Post.

A Texas study estimated cutting community college tuition by $1,000 boosted enrollment by 20 percent. However, there’s an unintended consequence: Many black students enrolled in community college instead of a four-year institution, the study found.

Low-income students who could qualify for a selective college sometimes choose a community college instead. “Undermatching” lowers the odds of graduation, researchers say. Community colleges attract many poorly prepared students. Completion rates are low.

Drawing more affluent students to community colleges would end economic segregation, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told the Wall Street Journal. “We’ve known since Brown vs. the Board of Education that separate is unequal, and today institutions for low-income and working-class kids vs. middle- and upper-class kids are rarely equal,” he said.

Lots of stuff is affordable — but not college

Here’s why poor families can afford flat-screen TVs but can’t afford to pay for their children’s college education.

Maine: No tuition for sophomores?

Sophomore year would be free at University of Maine campuses under a plan proposed by a Democratic candidate for governor. One third of first-year students don’t make it to their second year.

What do students learn in college?

Massachusetts is leading a nine-state effort to measure what students learn in college. The plan is to compare students’ work, including term papers and lab reports, rather than using a standardized test.

A three-year bachelor’s of applied science degree will cost $13,000 to $15,000 for Texas students. The competency-based degree, developed by South Texas College and Texas A&M University at Commerce, mixes online and face-to-face learning.

Top ‘okay’ colleges

Nation’s Parents Release Annual Ranking Of Top 50 ‘Perfectly Good’ State Schools, reports The Onion. It’s satire, but it’s also true.

President Obama wants to rate colleges and universities on accessibility, affordability and student success. Very few schools offer all three, reports the American Enterprise Institute. For example, colleges with a high graduation rate tend to enroll few lower-income students, as measured by Pell Grant eligibility.

Only 19 colleges and universities enroll at least one-quarter Pell-eligible students, have at least a 50 percent graduation rate, and have a net price less than $10,000 a year, reports AEI. The list includes City University of New York (CUNY) and California State University schools, the University of  Washington’s Seattle and Bothell Campuses and West Virginia University. As The Onion puts it, these are “perfectly good” state schools.

Ranking colleges on affordability

The Washington Monthly‘s college rankings create a ‘reputation and reward’ system for colleges that are “recruiting and graduating kids of modest means” says editor Paul Glastris.

Obama: Link student aid to college value

President Obama proposes rating colleges on tuition, student loan debt, graduation rates and graduates’ earnings so students can shop for the best value. Eventually, Congress will be asked to reward higher-performing colleges with larger Pell Grants and lower-cost loans for their students.

College costs will continue to rise, predicts an economist.

The best bang-for-the-buck colleges

The University of California at San Diego tops Washington Monthly‘s list of the top colleges for social mobility (enrolling and graduating low-income students at an affordable price), research and service. Next in line are Texas A&M, Stanford, University of North Carolina and Berkeley.

Only one of U.S. News‘ top ten schools, Stanford, makes the Washington Monthy’s top ten. Yale fails even to crack the top 40. New York University, which has floated to national prominence on a sea of student debt, is 77th. NYU does particularly poorly on the new “bang for the buck” measure.
Thirteen of the top 20 Washington Monthly universities are public, while all the top-ranked U.S. News colleges are “private institutions that spend more, charge more, and cater almost exclusively to the rich and upper-upper middle class.”
Also in the Washington Monthly, Stephen Burd calls for Getting Rid of the College Loan Repo Man who fails to distinguish between deadbeats and people who just can’t pay.

Congress: How are colleges cutting costs?

College leaders talked about how they’re cutting costs at House and Senate hearings last week.

Federal higher education funding increased 155 percent over the last decade, yet students are paying more, said House Subcommittee Chair Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican. “If government subsidies aren’t producing more affordable education in the current system, we cannot keep writing bigger checks,” she said.

College leaders fail Obama’s tuition plan

College leaders don’t like President Obama’s tuition-control plan, reports AP. In his State of the Union speech, the president threatened to cut some forms of federal aid to students at colleges that raise tuition or fail to provide “good value.”

Fuzzy math, Illinois State University’s president called it.

“Political theater of the worst sort,” said the University of Washington’s head.

States have reduced higher education funding, forcing public colleges and universities to raise tuition, university presidents say.

Under the president’s proposal, colleges would be judged on “responsible tuition policy,” either by “offering relatively lower net tuition prices” or “restraining tuition growth,” reports College Inc. In addition, the Education Department would evaluate how well colleges prepare graduates to get jobs and repay student loans, and their performance in enrolling and graduating low-income students.

The aid that colleges stand to lose under the president’s plan is not the Pell grant, the largest source of federal funds to students, but rather a package of “campus-based” programs that the federal government delivers to colleges. They are Federal Work Study, an initiative that subsidizes the expenses of campus jobs for needy students at 3,400 colleges; Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, a supplement to the Pell grant that awards needy students $100 to $4,000 a year; and the Perkins loan program, which delivers low-interest loans to students.

Obama is proposing to expand all three programs to the tune of about $10 billion — enhancing the Perkins program from $1 billion to $8 billion and augmenting Work Study and Opportunity Grants by a combined $2 billion.

While some believe higher education funding should be tied to performance, Obama’s proposal would deny aid to needy students, critics charge. “Ultimately, who you are punishing with this is the students,” said Haley Chitty, spokesman for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “They’re the ones who get this aid.”