Blog: The Educated Reporter

Can the Community College ‘Promise’ Be Fulfilled?

Scott Jaschik, left, moderates EWA's National Seminar session on community colleges on April 21, 2015.

Nine million.

That’s how many students the White House believes will be able to attend a community college under the president’s proposed America’s College Promise program. During the session at EWA’s National Seminar held last month in Chicago, U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell said nine million students see college as unaffordable.

“We believe America’s College Promise will provide affordable degrees to the 40 percent of college students who choose community college,” he told the crowded room, “and provide opportunities to students who might struggle starting out at a four-year institution.”

Mitchell was joined by City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Cheryl Hyman, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Sara Goldrick-Rab and George Washington University professor Sandy Baum. Inside Higher Ed Editor and Co-founder Scott Jaschik moderated the discussion.

Mitchell explained the reasons he believes too many students begin college but don’t finish with a degree. One reason is a lack of appropriate support for students who may need it, such as first-generation college students or those from low-income families. Another, he explains, is that students begin college behind in skill-level, thus their time in school is spent on remedial and developmental coursework. A third factor, he said, is cost.

“Over the last 10 years, tuition has increased in state colleges and universities by 50 percent,” he said. “State disinvestment is at a crisis. It has unbalanced the three-legged stool,” leaving students and their families to shoulder the growing funding gap burden.

America’s College Promise would have the federal government partner with states to effectively waive community college tuition for students. It’s modeled after a similar program already in effect in Tennessee and in Chicago, where  the Star Scholarship provides free tuition at City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) to Chicago Public Schools  students who graduate with a 3.0 GPA and who test college-ready in English and math.

“The new educational baseline, I believe, is a postsecondary credential.Therefore, I’m a firm believer that K through 14, rather than K through 12, must be the new educational norm in our country,” Hyman said. “This means that community colleges must do all we can to eliminate the barriers to postsecondary education.”

Hyman pointed out what many have already questioned about such free-tuition proposals: community colleges have historically had low graduation rates and even lower rates of students who go on to complete bachelor’s degrees at four-year institutions.

To remedy those problems for CCC, she explained she launched a reinvention in 2010 to focus on the relevance of programs the school offers across its six campuses. In 2011, she, along with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, launched College to Careers by teaming up with 150 industry partners to meet the demands of the fastest growing fields in the region. Hyman says the colleges also introduced the Student “GPS” (Guided Pathways to Success) system to provide clear pathways to guide students to completion and also help them to juggle college with work and family responsibilities.

Mitchell explained that all community colleges likely would need to make similar changes in order for America’s College Promise to be successful.

“For their part, community colleges are being asked to do a couple of things. One is to create and extend articulation agreements and transfer pathways to four-year institutions,” he said. “Critically, we’re also asking community colleges to develop and invest even more in the creation of partnerships with employers to create job-based training programs for certificates and associate’s degrees.”

But states too, he said, would need to maintain or extend current spending on higher education. Jaschik questioned each panelist about whether America’s College Promise would really happen.

Goldrick-Rab says it has to.

“I think this is going to be somewhat akin to a new civil rights movement. I think this is a fight for leveling many of the real barriers that have been underplayed for a long time. We’ve been talking about academic preparation as if that doesn’t have to do with poverty.”

Baum, who researches trends in college affordability, was the lone dissenter on the panel. Though, she acknowledges that everyone shares the same goal of making higher education possible for everyone who wants it, she fears America’s College Promise could lead to other problems.

“We’re underfunding higher ed in this country, and we need more resources. Telling students that it’s free is not a magic way to get resources,” she said. “It’s great if the federal government were to put more money in, but we all know that fed government is looking for budget neutral ways to do things. So they’re saying, maybe the states will put more money in, but the states are not putting more money in.”

What’s more, she’s concerned that if states are required to spend more money on community colleges, they may have to take money away from four-year colleges, possibly causing tuition at those schools to increase. She also pointed out research showing that students’ chances of earning a bachelor’s degree are higher if the students start at a four-year school.

“I want low-income students to have a choice between starting at a community college and starting in a four-year college,” she said. “We need to serve these students well. We need to make sure we’re not just giving people something that is cheap, that we’re giving them something that is very high quality. And we have to have the resources to do it. And we have to understand that they come to college ill-prepared.”