5 pros and cons of Obama's free community college plan

President Barack Obama announced his free community college plan to the nation last week, and the first wave of critics and advocates have had their say.

Formally called “America’s College Promise,” the plan is modeled after the “Tennessee Promise” and offers free tuition for two years at community college to students who keep up a grade-point average of 2.5 or better, and who graduate within three years.

Here's a rundown of five pros and cons being debated about the plan so far:

Con: Partisan opposition

The plan may be dead in the water already, considering that it requires Congress to approve spending for the idea and the Republican majority is unlikely to support it. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate’s education committee, has stated he opposes the plan and that it should be up to individual states to provide a free community college option, similar to Tennessee’s program.

Pro: It could still be accepted below the federal level

Despite the stated opposition of Republicans in Congress, the idea has garnered bipartisan support below the federal level: In a state, with Tennessee’s GOP leadership, for example. And with Chicago, which is led by Democrats. Presenting the free community college plan puts the idea in the national conversation, even if it ultimately doesn’t come to fruition. In pointing out problems with the plan, critics may be forced to present better alternatives, and workable solutions can emerge.

Con: Existing programs cover poorest students

Free tuition for community college is already available for the poorest students through federal Pell Grants. More than 7 out of 10 students pay less than $1,000 per year for community college tuition, including nearly 2 out of 5 students who have grants that pay their entire tuition bill.

Pro: Free community college-level ed may be inevitable

Making two years of community college free would help close the gap between the haves and have nots in the U.S., especially at a time when many believe that universal education to the community college level is inevitable. By raising the bar and building off more two-year degrees, more people would be encouraged to seek a bachelor’s degree.

Con: The cost

If students receive free community college schooling without regard for their income levels, America’s College Promise could become a costly middle-class entitlement program. The estimated cost of the program, over 10 years, is $60 billion.

Pro: Plenty of students likely to benefit

Judging from the results of the free community college program in Tennessee so far, enrollment would surge when high school students learned that their own community college would be free. An estimated 9 million students would benefit.

Con: Increased competition could hurt four-year schools

The program could encourage students to go to community college instead of four-year schools, which could force some four-year schools to close. Allocating the estimated $60 billion in federal spending required for the program over 10 years could mean that less funding will be available for higher education initiatives and financial aid at four-year colleges and universities. The plan calls for states to pick up the tab for 25% of the bill, and state spending on higher education has been trending down.

Pro: States may be encouraged to spend more on higher ed

Obama’s free community college program could help kickstart increased commitment by states to spend on higher education. From 2008 to 2012, state funding for higher education dropped to 22.3% of total revenues from 29.1%, which has led to tuition increases.

Con: Community college has high dropout rates

The plan doesn’t address what some commentators see as a bigger problem: High dropout rates in community college of between 66% and 80%.

Pro: Progress and outcomes would be measured

The proposal would address educational quality by requiring community colleges to adopt evidence-based reforms to improve student outcomes. Whether or how this would be tied into the Obama college ratings proposal is unknown.

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Filed Under: Higher Ed Policy & Regulation