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.

Obama vows college cost controls

President Obama vowed to “shake up” higher education and “tackle rising costs,” in a speech on the economy that stressed college affordability for middle-class families.

A bipartisan student loan bill that will lower interest rates — at least for now — has passed the Senate and is expected to become law. The compromise ties interest rates to the government’s cost of borrowing.

Parents are spending less of their income on their children’s college costs and relying more on grants, scholarships, financial aid — and frugality — Sallie Mae reports.

Only one good school?

West Philadelphia parents are demanding spots in their neighborhood’s K-8 school, which now uses a lottery instead of first come, first enrolled. Penn Alexander, which is supported by Penn, is an excellent school, writes the Philadelphia Daily News. “Why hasn’t the district done more to replicate . . . success?

“In a large system, your shining examples cannot just be islands unto themselves,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of Philadelphia School Partnership. “They need to be part of the effort to create more schools like their own.”

Since it opened in September 2001, PAS has attracted middle-class families to West Philadelphia, helped to increase home prices in its catchment area by tens of thousands of dollars and established a strong community in an area once plagued by crime.

Other popular schools in the city typically have strong parental involvement and partnerships with outside cultural organizations and businesses.

Penn Alexander caps class size at 18 children in kindergarten and 24 in other grade levels. It receives $1,330 extra per student, up to $700,000, from the university. The Graduate School of Education supplies student teachers and offers training to experienced teachers. “But the money alone does not make it a great school,” Gleason said. “It helps. By itself, it doesn’t change anything.”

Education-minded families have been moving to the Spruce Hill neighborhood to send their kids to Penn Alexander, sending property values soaring, reports the Daily News. Plan Philly estimates a house inside the school’s boundaries fetches $50,000 to $100,000 more than one a block away.

A modest proposal: No student loans till 30

Frank Fleming offers a modest proposal to solve the student loan and debt problem: Set a minimum age of 30 for college loans.

In a sane world, if a teenager walked into a bank and said, “I would like a $50,000 loan to major in modern dance,” the bank manager would call security, who would then pummel the stupid kid, and everyone would end up smarter for it. But what happens instead is that Uncle Sam walks by and says, “I like his moxy. Give him the loan; I’ll guarantee it. And I’ll make sure he can’t ever get out of his stupid choice through bankruptcy.” So they give this giant amount of money to a dumb kid, and then the colleges are waiting outside, saying, “Hey! They’re giving huge loans to moron teenagers; we need to get some of that money!” So we have colleges preying on these gullible saps, increasing costs while their diplomas plummet in value in a complete mockery of our capitalistic system.

We don’t let 18-year-olds buy alcohol,  Fleming points out. Why let them borrow huge sums of money? If the borrowing age for student loans was set at 30, borrowers “might actually have some idea of what money is and what debt means.”

And having had to make a living without a college education, by age 30 they’ll hopefully understand what they need higher education for and get a functional degree instead of majoring in something like philosophy (and it’s kind of ironic, because if you major in philosophy, you obviously do need more training in how to think).

Fleming also has suggestions for the inevitable bailout of student debtors:  “We should at least randomly select some of them to fight to the death for our amusement in the Debt Games.”

Subsidizing student loans benefits middle-class — and sometimes affluent  — students at a time when grants to low-income students are about to go over a “funding cliff.”


Fewer women study STEM

Despite high demand for workers with technical skills, fewer women are earning certificates and associate degrees in science, technology, engineering and math  at community colleges, concludes a new report. Less than 2 percent of  engineers with four-year degrees are out of work.

Are community colleges doomed to be the Wal-Marts of higher education?


Frugal is the new black

More affluent students are starting at community college to avoid debt, reports the Washington Post.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  Father Guido Sarducci’s five-minute university will teach everything you’re likely to remember five years from now for $20.

CCs need middle-class students

Community colleges should recruit white, middle-class students to build political capital and financial support, argues Richard Kahlenberg, a Century Foundation fellow.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  Looking for ways to get students to stay in college.