The school counseling community is buzzing about President Obama’s plan to offer two years of free community college to all high school graduates. First announced two weeks ago, the plan was the key education plank in the State of the Union address, and is seen as a win for all high school students. Graduates looking to attend a four –year college would have the opportunity to get half of their college credits free at a community college before transferring to a four year institution. At the same time, high school students wanting to pursue a technical degree would be able to complete most or all of their required training for free.
School counselors see this program as sending the right message to students; no matter what you plan to do, more school is needed after high school to make your way in the world. That message will be important to convey early and often, since policy analysts suggest the proposal has some high hurdles to overcome:
- First and foremost, President Obama’s plan calls for new federal funding. It’s estimated the free program will cost $60 billion over 10 years—and with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, funding of any new programs will be under close review.
- This review will be even more difficult, since the president has proposed a tax increase on the wealthy to generate the funding. Tax increases are never popular, but given the number of Americans just getting out of the clutches of the Great Recession, it seems unlikely Congress will take this approach to funding the program.
- This means it is more likely Congress would be willing to redirect funding from the Pell program to this initiative—a move that could hurt the financial aid opportunities for four-year students.
- Finally, one-fourth of the funding for the program is expected to come from the states. Since many of the states have been cutting funding to higher education, local funding would likely also have to come from raising taxes—in this case, state taxes. This would lead to two tax increases for many Americans, doubling their displeasure of elected officials.
As the political realities of a great idea being to sink in, policy makers wonder if there are other approaches to creating free funding that would be less controversial—and the answer is yes. For the past three years, the Detroit Regional Chamber has offered two years of free community college to any Detroit high school student who graduated from a Detroit school. After enrolling in the program and applying for existing federal aid by completing the FAFSA, the DRC program pays for any expenses the federal government won’t cover, as long as the student enrolls full-time in one of five community colleges in Metro Detroit.
The advantages of this approach to free community college are clear. First, students have to complete the FAFSA, something they hesitate to do without some urging. Since there’s nothing like free college to excite them, students take the time to complete the form, knowing that any shortfall will be picked up by the DRC scholarship program.
Second, since this is a “last dollars” program, the DRC plan builds off of current federal policy, requiring no new money or legislation, while helping more students.
Finally, the program requires students to attend community college full-time, as well as participate in study success seminars—two keys to successful completion of college, which is the ultimate goal.
Everyone hopes President Obama’s plan for free community college works—but if it falls short, there’s a thriving program in Detroit that could become a national model.