Free Community College Tuition: MCCC Cautiously Optimistic

Below is an article I wrote that should be published in the Monroe News this weekend. Since there is much ado about president Obama’s “Free” community college plan, I decided to make my thoughts known. My article is also a rebuttal to a Wall Street Journal article published in the Monroe News that implied that community colleges are a “bad” investment. Please read on….

Since President Obama announced his plan for “free” community college tuition, America’s College Promise, a few weeks ago, there has been much talk, debate, discussion, and, of course, criticism. I am being asked everywhere I go if I am excited about the plan.

The short answer to this question is that we do not have all the needed details because they have yet to be fleshed out, but I am cautiously optimistic.   I continue to review as much information on the plan as is currently available and consider opinions that are both for and against it. The fact of the matter is that we are a long way from knowing all we need to know about America’s College Promise.

I felt compelled, though, to write this article to shed more light on my personal thoughts, especially after reading the January 19 guest editorial in the Monroe News from the Wall Street Journal entitled “‘Free’ Community College Proposal Throwing Good Money after Bad.”

I take exception to many of the points made in that article.  Money invested in community colleges is in no way bad!  Community colleges like Monroe County Community College serve a purpose like no other educational institutions.  Community colleges take “diamonds in the rough” – students who perhaps could go nowhere else for higher education – and shape them, mold them and transform them into critical contributors to the workforce and society.

When I thought of all that MCCC provides county residents, these questions immediately came to mind:  Who else would prepare underprepared students for success in college if we did not?  Who else would offer a learning environment focused not on research but on hands-on teaching and individual student mentorship?  Who else would provide program curricula and instructional delivery to educate students for workforce-ready success?    Who else would provide the workforce training to narrow the skills gap?  And, perhaps most importantly, who else would tailor educational services to the specific needs of the community?

MCCC (like the majority of community colleges across the U.S.) is the chief provider of the aforementioned services in the areas we serve.  We provide access, affordability and success for many who choose us for certificates and two-year options that lead directly to careers or as a “stepping stone” to a four-year degree.  We provide opportunity.

The author of the Wall Street Journal article notes correctly that the graduation rate for community colleges is 21 percent.  However, because of faulty federal data, the public often misconstrues the actual graduation rates of community colleges because many of our students transfer to four-year institutions without actually earning a two-year degree.   According to the National Student Clearinghouse, six years after enrolling in a community college, more than 57 percent of all community college students have graduated from the college they entered or from another institution.  While community colleges are committed to increasing this rate, it is much higher than is commonly perceived.

Also, in many instances, students attend community college simply to earn a few credits to upgrade their skills and resumes.  This is precisely why President Obama’s administration has developed a college rating system more reflective of what community colleges do and why community college associations have developed the Voluntary Framework of Accountability, which is a much more appropriate measure of community college accountability and success than the current federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

“Free” community college tuition will no doubt benefit community colleges in some ways, however, we must be cautious because the current plan lacks the necessary details and funding, as well as votes in Congress.  It is important that we not get too far ahead of ourselves until more details come to light, because many questions remain unanswered, such as:

  • Does “free” tuition ensure that students who receive it complete or transfer within two years? A student may earn a 2.5 grade point average as required but not complete a credential in two years.  What happens then?
  • Many low income students who would benefit from “free” tuition already receive Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid.
  • The America’s College Promise plan is limited to “certain community college programs.” Will the qualifying programs result in decreased enrollment in other areas, such as the liberal arts and other “transfer” programs? Will students flock to specific fields just for free tuition?
  • Will four-year institutions push back on the plan due to anticipated enrollment losses?
  • How will cash-strapped states afford their share?
  • Where and how will the federal funds be obtained?

Sure, “free college” sounds good.  But there are scant details, it is still a long way off, and it will undoubtedly face a lot of opposition.  Still, the basic thrust of the America’s College Promise plan is commendable because it would increase access for potential college students across the country.  It also sends a message to the nation that postsecondary education is for all Americans.

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One thought on “Free Community College Tuition: MCCC Cautiously Optimistic

  1. Funny, Yesterday I wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Toledo Blade regarding the same thing. Hopefully it will get published. Pete

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