Obama’s free community college proposal met with excitement, hesitation

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Amanda Hart/Staff

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In his Monday budget proposal, President Barack Obama elaborated on his plan to eliminate tuition for some community college students — but not everyone is convinced the plan will come to fruition.

Announced last month, the proposal, dubbed America’s College Promise, would make two years of community college free for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA, enroll at least half-time and make progress toward their degrees. If passed, it would cost the federal government $1.365 billion in 2016 — a small fraction of Obama’s $4 trillion proposed budget — and would increase the federal deficit by $60 billion over the next decade.

According to a White House statement, the plan would stipulate that states cover about one-quarter of the program’s expenses, and if all states participate, 9 million students could benefit. The California community college system is the largest system of higher education in the country, with more than 2.3 million students enrolled in 2013-14, according to the system’s website.

Before states can decide whether to implement the program, it must first be passed by a Republican-controlled Congress — the chances of which are “close to zero,” according to John Douglass, a senior research fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education.

Students at Berkeley City College expressed similar hesitation as to the viability of the plan.

“I think people know about it,” said Aman Williams, a second-year student at BCC. “I just don’t think people believe it’s going to actually happen.”

According to the College Board, California’s two-year colleges have the lowest average fees in the nation: $1,429 for 2014-15 versus $3,347 nationwide.

Jeffrey Heyman, a spokesperson for the Peralta Community College District, which includes BCC, recognized the state’s already-low tuition and the large number of students who have their fees waived. In some ways, he said, the plan’s intended effects are already being felt in California.

Though Heyman said the plan was “creating quite a buzz,” he added that it is too early to begin implementing any changes in the district.

That feeling was echoed by Paul Feist, the vice chancellor for communications at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, who said the proposal would have to be enacted at the federal level before California could make a statewide decision to participate in the program.

He said, however, that he was excited attention was being brought to the issue, especially because classes at California community colleges were free until 1984.

“California really started with free community college,” Feist said. “It’s a goal that’s worth getting back to.”

To Douglass, however, California community colleges’ funding model is “completely inadequate … relative to workload and demand.” The state asks too much of its community colleges without providing public investment, he said.

He added that California already has low fees, more students in community colleges than any other state and some of the highest dropout rates in the country.

“That begs the question, are low fees or no fees really the path for a robust and efficient community college system?” Douglass said. “It isn’t a clear solution for California.”

Sahil Chinoy is the lead higher education reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @sahilchinoy_dc.