Can Community College Systems and Infrastructure Handle Free Tuition?

The President’s proposal for free tuition is exciting, but some parts of the plan may need revision if community colleges are going to be able to execute it.

“We don’t expect the country to be transformed overnight, but we do expect this conversation to begin tomorrow.”

The conversation President Obama’s domestic policy chief, Cecilia Munoz, is referring to is one that we are all familiar with: access to quality education. This extended conversation, which continued today with the president’s speech at Pellissippi Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, includes President Obama’s new proposal to make the first two years of community college completely free for students looking to transfer, or to get an associates degree or technical job training.

The president’s proposal, America’s College Promise, is looking to build a shared responsibility between the federal government, states, colleges. and students across the country to reexamine and reinvest in our education systems. Modeled after similar plans currently being adopted by states such as Tennessee, community colleges offering programs that fully transfer, or provide a degree or job training would be eligible for funding from the federal government to help make tuition free for students. The program would apply to half- and full-time students who maintain a minimum 2.5 GPA and make “steady progress” towards their goals. What exactly “steady progress” means remains to be clearly defined, along with many other details, such as where the federal funding will come from. President Obama says he will release those details in his State of the Union address on January 20.

Even without all of the specifics, I can say that as a current community college student, access to and affordability of classes is crucial in determining whether or not I will graduate in a timely manner. However, it is not solely lack of money that hinders us students from being able to complete a program in two years, but a combination of multiple infrastructural issues such as course offerings, classroom space, and most importantly, proper guidance to navigate the complex systems that are the basis of the college itself. America’s College Promise is not only aiming to provide the always-needed financial assistance, but also requiring colleges to adopt “promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes,” such as the successful Accelerated Student in Associates Program (ASAP) at the City University of New York. Programs such as ASAP provide much needed resources such as guidance, counseling, and schedule planning, which are all crucial components to graduating on time.

The Obama administration believes adopting research-backed programs, like ASAP, nationwide, will provide students with the additional help needed to successfully complete their education in two years. While in theory, the blanket adoption of specific programs such as these would benefit some students in some states, it most likely would not benefit all students in all states. Take my campus, San Bernardino Valley College, which is located in the bankrupt city of San Bernardino in Southern California. What works for the population in Knoxville, Tennessee will not necessarily address the needs of students 2,000 miles across the country that are from very different economic, social, and cultural backgrounds. It could also add extra pressure on already stressed community college systems by forcing college administrators, faculty members, and students to learn and navigate yet another assistance program on campus. It seems redundant to force a community college that already has counseling services, academic advisors, and multiple assistance programs of their own to adopt additional programs, instead of encouraging better technical and skills training for those already employed on their campuses in areas such as counseling, advising, and educational planning. Many schools already provide the pathways for that type of guidance and counseling to occur, they just need to be reexamined and reinvigorated instead of ignored and replaced.

Another major question this proposal brings up is one of capacity. Again, using my community college as an example, with close to 13,000 students enrolled full-time, classroom space is already extremely limited, financially and physically. Schools would be pressured to create additional course offerings to accomodate higher enrollment, which is already an issue colleges across the country have had great difficulty with.

So, can America’s College Promise truly be fulfilled? I believe so, but not until a few critical components are reexamined and rewritten. The intention is there, but thankfully this is not a final proposal and is continuing to undergo development.