Free Community college proposal, how it affects Eastern

Roberto Hodge, Multicultural Editor

President Barack Obama proposed a plan to make the first two years of community college free for all American students, which would be modeled after Tennessee’s Promise in early January and again during his State of the Union address.

Though the plan could potentially send many Americans to college for the first time or back into the education system, there are those who see the program as a double-edged sword, possibly negatively affecting four-year universities.

The proposal calls for the federal government to kick in 75 percent of “average cost of community college,” while the states would be expected to fund the remaining 25 percent. The average cost of attending a two-year institution between 2011 and 2012 was $9,308.

If passed, students should know the program is not entirely free, as it comes with requirements that must be completed on the student’s behalf. Students must be enrolled in enough classes to qualify them as part-time students, as well as maintain a 2.5 GPA or higher toward their degree completion.

President Bill Perry said the program demands an equal commitment from students.

This could be a positive development for access to higher education for students,” Perry said.  “It is important to remember that this subsidy as proposed requires academic performance and progress on the part of the student; so the subsidy is not ‘free’ in that sense.”

Community colleges also have requirements they need to meet including the expectation of academic programs that fully transfer to local public four-year colleges or universities, or occupational training programs with high graduation rates leading to degrees or certificates.

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama attributed the plan to the progress and development of children.

“It is the key to success for our kids in the 21st Century,” Obama said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found in 2013, the rate of unemployment for persons 25 and older with no more than a high school diploma was 7.5 percent, while the rate for those with a bachelor’s degree was 4 percent.

Chris Dearth, the director of admissions, said the proposal is still on the table and it’s a little too early to tell how it could fully affect four-year universities. However, one if the biggest concerns is how states are going to fund such a program.

“That’s a big hurtle,” Dearth said. “Any federal cuts just put more pressure on public institutions to come up with revenue streams.”

Dearth said what families need to keep in mind is the program only covers tuition cost and not room/board fees, which some could see as good deal, but to look at the overall picture.

“It’s an interesting concept,” Dearth said. “It sounds like a great deal, but families need to have that conversation.”

Perry, who agreed with Dearth, said he doesn’t expect the proposal to move at the federal level, but other states might look at Tennessee’s program to see if they can scale to their standards.

“Regardless, (the) money has to come from somewhere,” Perry said.

Some might feel state funding may see a small break, but Perry said it is not likely to happen in Illinois.

State funding of higher education in Illinois will likely not increase in the near term. If the president’s program simply shifts the source of students’ tuition to another federal program, state funding will not be strongly affected,” Perry said. “It might be possible that the demand on MAP funding would decline a bit.”

Though the proposal could help students with costs going to college overall, Dearth said going to a community college straight out of high school automatically excludes the student from some scholarships Eastern has.

Incoming freshman students are eligible for these types of scholarships, but forfeit such a right if coming from community colleges. The Merit Scholarships such as the Pemberton Presidential Scholar award, which covers room/board fees as well as tuition up to $11,00 a year; a Presidential Scholar award giving students $11,000 a year; Honors award allowing students up to $3000 a year and the Panther Promise tuition waiver for students whose family makes $33,000 to $71,000, where selected students will receive up to $2,500 in tuition.

Dearth said he’s keeping an eye on Eastern’s enrollment, but the area has a good community college locally, which many choose as a cost-saver, which deter students from coming to Eastern. However, Eastern has recently come to an agreement with Lakeland College allowing a reverse transfer.

A reverse transfer is when students currently enrolled at a four-year institution sends their transcript back to a community college allowing for a completion of an equivalent class, which may reward them with their associate’s degree.

Rita Pearson, the assistant director of admissions, said she supports all forms of higher education and all students should be supported financially. If passed, Pearson said the program could affect Eastern’s freshman enrollment, but the transfer enrollment may increase instead.

Pearson also said there should be more financial support for four-year institutions because of what they can offer that community colleges may not.

“It’s still early and I give him a lot of credit to think outside the box and get students (interested) in higher education,” Dearth said.

Roberto Hodge can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].