The land of the free, the home of the brave, and a country where education is not a luxury. Last month, during the State of the Union, President Obama announced that any student who is willing to attend school at least half-time and maintains a 2.5 GPA would qualify for fully subsidized tuition for community college. The goal, as outlined by Obama, is for America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
In an interview with The Politic, Yale professor of economics Jose-Antonio Espin-Sanchez detailed the long-term benefits that could arise from this ambitious proposal. Increased access to higher education will effectively “increase human capital, make it easier for people to go to college, and also reduce inequality,” Espin-Sanchez said. “A world where the children who go to college is based on merit, and not just the income of your parents, has a more balanced playing field.”
Nonetheless, the cost of the plan—estimated at $60 billion over the next decade between the federal and state governments, with the former funding 75 percent—poses a major obstacle. Individuals who defend the cost, like Yale’s Sterling Professor of Political Science Ian Shapiro, put the cost in a different perspective: “Sixty billion dollars over ten years…is chump change. It’s two months of the war in Iraq.”
Even among those who justify the cost, however, the question remains as to whether this is the best use of funds. Opponents of the plan argue the money could be more wisely invested in other higher education ventures. Community college students have a stark record of dropping out of college before graduating, with estimates that more than 50 percent drop out before graduating. This number is unlikely to change significantly, even if community college were offered for free; low-income students who currently attend community college free of charge (through Pell grants and other aid) have similarly high dropout rates, according to a study by the University of California.
More importantly, the plan fails to account for the underlying expenses that pose significant economic hurdles for underprivileged students. Beneath the plan’s flashy label of ‘free community college’ lie additional costs – living expenses, transportation costs, and inordinately high textbook prices. Shapiro acknowledged this fact, recognizing that textbooks can often cost hundreds of dollars and pose significant financial hurdles for students.
However, some people feel community college tuition relief will indeed make a difference. For Dan Huymh, a community college student at Bellevue College in Washington, not having to pay tuition would make a significant difference. Huymh explains that he and many students work long hours to cover the various costs of attending community college; for these students, Obama’s plan would ease the financial burden, and mean “that they don’t have to work as much to pay for tuition.” In theory, then, fewer students will drop out of college because they can put more time into their studies.
Though many politicians on both sides of the aisle favor expanding access to higher education, ample controversy surrounds the plan’s structure and implementation. The initial proposal planned to mitigate the cost by taxing 529 college saving accounts (in which money saved for college can grow tax-free), but that measure was removed after fervent opposition from politicians on both the right and left. Even with these amendments, a Republican-controlled House will surely beleaguer any effort to enact this plan.
Nonetheless, perhaps the most important takeaway from the proposal is its demonstration of a clear need to improve access to higher education. Even if Obama’s plan may not be a cure-all for expanding access to higher education, the proposal takes a step in the right direction for improving the education system.
But Steven B. Klinsky, a philanthropist who founded the nonprofit, Modern States Education Alliance, advocates for a different—and more innovative—solution to expand access to higher education. Klinsky recently donated one million dollars to edX, a massive open online course (MOOC) provider created by Harvard and MIT. Rather than try to lower the cost of higher education in a manner that fails to account for significant non-tuition expenses, Klinsky advocates making the first year of college entirely free.
The initiative involves making a wide-range of freshman-level college courses available on edX. These courses will focus on preparing students to take Advanced Placement (AP) and College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, which—if passed—can be used for college credit. In theory, one could skip the first year of college by earning credits through exams, with the assistance of online courses.
Klinsky’s plan does not necessarily yield the same result as Obama’s proposal, but it represents a creative, immediate, and—most significantly—less costly solution to the problem of unequal higher education opportunities. The strong reaction to Obama’s plan from proponents and critics alike highlights the pressing need to expand access to higher education. Given the prohibitive cost of college that seems to exponentially increase, change will have to come from an unconventional plan or decisive congressional action.