In a 2009 speech to Congress, Barack Obama proposed to “lead the world in college completion by 2020.”
Most of you are probably aware that in the United States, a four-year college degree is a pathway into the middle class, because it’s associated with much higher earnings than a high school or even an associate degree. See Frank Bruni’s Cradle to Ivory Tower op-ed in the New York Times.
And the pathway to college begins early – so early, in fact, that according to The Economist, the United States is becoming a “hereditary meritocracy.” College graduates are marrying each other and producing children who grow up in stable families, get constant stimulation, and go on to attend college themselves.
To partially remedy this, the Obama administration has recently proposed legislation entitled “America’s College Promise,” which stipulates that the federal government make community college free nationwide (or cover up to $3800 in costs) for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and earn an AA degree within 3 years at a program that either has a high transfer rate to 4-year college or results in successful long-term employment. The President mentioned the program in this week’s State of the Union address.
If America’s College Promise were passed — which it probably won’t be under this Republican-majority Congress — it could have a real impact on the careers of up to 9 million community college students. It would also raise the stakes for CC’s by obliging them to meet more exacting standards of retention and academic achievement with their students.
The details of the proposal are spelled out by Dr. Ira Rubenzahl of Springfield Technical Community College, in Springfield, MA, on his higher education blog. “The Obama proposal,” Rubenzahl points out, “ is based on one existing program in Tennessee – Tennessee Promise – and another that is to begin in the fall of 2015 in Chicago – Chicago Star Scholarship.” Unlike Tennessee Promise, which covers all 2-year associates’ degree programs in Tennessee, and Chicago Star Scholarship, which applies only to community colleges in the Chicago area, the federal program could potentially cover every 2-year public community college in the country.
America’s College Promise, in its present guise, would not apply to Excelsior College, because it’s not a community college. However, the Obama proposal is still highly relevant, in my opinion, for many of the College’s more than 40,000 students, and the goals of the program are a good fit with the Excelsior mission. Approximately 18,000 EC students are in BA or MA programs, but the rest are pursuing associates degrees and training certificates. In the last fiscal year, 4690 students in all of Excelsior’s programs have earned terminal degrees or certificates. A survey of alumni revealed that 70 percent were working in their chosen field three years after graduating and 58 percent had gotten promoted after earning their degrees. Our largest degree-granting program is the Associate in Science in Nursing, with 12,493 enrolled students in January 2015. Thus if Obama’s proposal were ever to become law, it would raise a number of questions about the future of Excelsior College, but overall, students would probably benefit.
Under America’s College Promise, 75 percent of all tuition costs for community colleges would be covered by federal government, and 25 percent would have to be covered by states as a matching grant. All students would be eligible, but in order to stay in the program, in Rubenzahl’s words, they would need to
- Maintain 2.5 GPA
- Be enrolled at least ½ time (6-credit minimum/semester)
- Maintain progress to completing program (same eligibility as federal aid)
Community college programs, according to Rubenzahl, would be eligible if their programs (1) had high graduation rates, and (2) offered (a) credits that were fully transferable to public four year colleges, and/or (b) training that was in high demand by employers. Since high graduation rates, fully transferable credits and high rates of post-degree employment would all need to be independently verified, community colleges who participated in America’s College Promise would we required to “commit to some type of performance-based reforms,” Rubenzahl writes.
The Obama administration estimates that this program would cost about $8 billion a year, of which $6 billion would be from the federal government and $2 billion from the states. Over a period of ten years, the total cost would be about $60 billion, and it could benefit about 9 million community college students by saving each of them up to $3800 in tuition on average.
So would America’s College Promise work as advertised, if it were passed?
Certainly the Obama administration also has many supporters. A report from the center-left Brookings Institution proposes four reasons that Obama’s focus on community colleges is correct:
- Low-income, first generation college students usually start at community college (to be specific, 42 percent of all students, and 58 percent of students whose parents didn’t finish high school)
- Community colleges offer valuable training in vocational skills;
- They also offer an important alternative path to success, thus demonstrating that four-year and graduate degrees are not the only options; and finally,
- Older students are served more effectively by Community Colleges than by four-year institutions and graduate programs, because CC’s offer flexible schedules, as well as modular and part-time courses.
The following graph of college enrollment, taken from the National Center for Education Statistics, supports Brookings’ conclusions:
Some institutions, such as Northern Virginia Community College (also known as NOVA) successfully manage students’ transitions from high school into 4-year colleges by forming partnerships with 4-year institutions.
George Mason University, in Washington DC, graduates thousands of students from the “Pathways to the Bacculareate” program where students transfer from NOVA and get both tuition reimbursement and regular assistance from advisors.
Evidence is mixed, however, both for the potential usefulness of America’s College Promise for helping individual students to complete degrees. Critics have also raised more general questions about the usefulness of community college for the growth of the US economy. The Economist Magazine, a conservative publication based in Great Britain, evaluates the Obama proposal and concludes that it isn’t feasible, because Republicans will almost certainly oppose anything but a simplification of financial aid forms for community college students. Critics of the proposal, among whom the vast majority of Republican decision-makers, believe that even if it were passed, the measure wouldn’t make much difference because it would have the perverse effect of causing states and other donors to cut their funding.
An Atlantic Monthly report on ASAP, a program in New York City for low-income students attending community college, describes a program that is highly structured, requires full-time attendance, costs $7200 per student, ($3600 a year for 2 years) and involves constant contact with students. ASAP is successful in pushing its students to complete their Associates’ degrees, but to date, it has not helped them either find jobs when they graduate or transfer successfully to four-year colleges.
The New York Times, paints a portrait of an art student and aspiring art teacher who attends LaGuardia Community College, in Queens, NY, and is highly intelligent, well-read, and a devoted father to his 6-year old daughter. However, he can’t seem to finish community college because (1) he’s been unable to meet the algebra requirement, having failed a remedial math class three times, (2) he’s constantly haunted by money worries and can’t resist the pull of part-time and/or full-time work (3) he must deal with chronic stress-related ulcers (4) his parenting obligations, including long commutes to and from his home to his child’s school and her extracurricular activities, make it difficult for him to schedule his classes. Unless this student becomes able to pay for both intensive math instruction and for full-time college attendance, neither of which are included in the Obama proposal as it now stands, he has slim prospects for completing the associates and transferring into a four year art program.
I’ve just described the problems facing a highly motivated student. But not every community college student even gets that far. Another New York Times report: suggests that community college students, in the words of one psychology professor, often “cringe at complexity.” They are suspicious of learning for learning’s sake; they don’t believe it’s possible. They may lack curiosity about the world. Some may not even know what the GOP is, for example, or understand why they should learn history, English or philosophy.
Students who transfer into four-year programs are not typical community college students. They are usually highly motivated self-starters with career goals, possibly unique talents, and an unusual openness to learning,
The Chronicle of Higher Education largely confirms the findings by journalists that I have described here. (This link is behind a paywall.)
In a 2009 speech to Congress, Barack Obama proposed to “lead the world in college completion by 2020.” At the time, the US was ranked 12th in the world for college completion, with a completion rate of 41 percent including 2-year associates degrees. Today in 2015 the US is 11th in the world, and the college completion rate is 44 percent, far lower than Korea, the world’s top scorer, at 67 percent. The completion rate, in other words, has barely budged.The Chronicle has a positive spin on this finding:
“There has been some progress: Enrollment is up, as are graduation rates. In 2012-13 there were 10 percent more students at four-year colleges than there were when the president took office, federal data show. During the same period, the number of degrees conferred increased by 15 percent. Public community colleges awarded 75,000 more associate degrees in 2012-13 than they did two years earlier, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.”
The article also points out that high rates of college completion do not necessarily translate into a strong economy. Russia is #3 in the world for college degrees, and its economy, based largely on the export of oil, is in deep trouble.
Also, even though college graduation rates haven’t moved much in the US overall, individual institutions have had remarkable success in raising their own students’ graduation rates. Georgia State University, for example, has used “predictive analytics” to predict which students are at risk of dropping out, and offered those students financial and academic assistance. As a result, minority students’ completion rates have gone up and are now higher than or equal to those of white students.
To sum up: I believe that Excelsior would probably want community college to be free, because it would be good for more than half of its students and it would advance the College’s mission. However, the prospects for the legislation passing are dim at best, because the evidence in favor of free community college is mixed and the politics are messy.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone. They do not represent the official policies or assessments of Excelsior College.
Obama Photo Credit: Chris Maddaloni / Roll Call Photos Inc. / Newscom / Universal Images Group