Verbum Ultimum: A Shallow Promise

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 1/15/15 10:43pm

Last week, President Obama announced his goal of making community college free “for everybody who is willing to work for it.” The plan would require over $60 billion in federal funds, and student eligibility for subsidies would be dependent on certain criteria, such as minimum grade point average and enrollment status. Critics have questioned how effective, both in terms of cost and outcome, such a move would be. While Obama’s plan is imperfect, we — as students with the privilege of attending Dartmouth — must recognize it as an important first step forward in making higher education more accessible nationwide.

Half of undergraduate students in the United States attend a community college — any improvements that can be made, therefore, will deliver significant benefits to the working-age population. Yet data reveal that only 20 percent of students who began community college in 2009 completed their two-year programs in three years or less — a full year more than Obama’s proposal would cover.

In today’s job market, those with only a high school diploma face a distinct disadvantage compared to peers who graduate from colleges or universities. Students who want to continue their education and thus improve their employment prospects should have the chance to do so.Despite its potential, the proposal fails to fully address immediate questions about financial aid and community college. For the lowest-income students, for example, Pell Grants already cover up to $5,730 in expenses, which in many cases exceeds the full cost of tuition. Community college students face many challenges beyond the cost of tuition, such as childcare and transportation, that do not affect most Dartmouth undergraduates.

Ideally, this proposal would mean that Pell Grant money could cover these out-of-pocket costs, which act as barriers to attending school for lower-income students. Funds could also go toward improving the educational resources of community colleges.

Federal funds to community colleges may, however, lead to unintended hikes in overall operating costs, as community colleges’ expenses will no longer be constrained by the revenues raised from student tuition, thereby offsetting the efficacy of the new proposal.

Further, free community college is not a universal answer. Focusing on community college alone risks missing other ways to improve education and provide lower-income Americans with necessary job training. Funding should also help expand the availability and reduce the cost of professional certification programs and technical training, as these programs can act as alternatives to community college for those interested in developing vocational skills.

Moreover, we hope that this announcement signals an increased focus on how to reform the U.S. education system as a whole. Many of the problems with student retention and performance that afflict community colleges originate in underfunded K-12 schools. Free community college cannot deliver its full potential if its students come from a broken primary and secondary education system.

While this proposal may not have an immediate impact on Dartmouth or its students, it is part of a larger movement to increase college accessibility, reduce the burden of student loans and increase the potential for social mobility.

Obama’s proposal has its shortcomings, but regardless of whether it becomes law, it has still expanded the conversation on how to reform American higher education. The proposal makes significant strides towards ensuring that American education in the twenty-first century is equitable and accessible to all socioeconomic groups. We must not let that opportunity go to waste.

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