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President Barack Obama reemphasized in the State of the Union address this week his plan to offer free community college to Americans who “earn it.” His initial announcement earlier in the month energized news networks and social media, prompting an avalanche of responses.

Personally, I am skeptical. The information offered Jan. 8 prompts concern. Might such a big and bold plan that comes with dollars attached to outcomes persuade college administrators to widen their student achievement “goal posts?” Could a plan of this nature lean on our finest higher education asset – teachers – pressuring them to compromise their values about teaching and learning? There are more details to come. But until then, let’s take the briefing at face value.

The president’s proposal shows tremendous confidence in our community college system – and rightly so. The benefits that this system provides to society shows in the statistics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that attaining an Associate’s degree equates with about a 20 percent higher rate of weekly earnings and a much lower unemployment rate than attaining only a high school diploma.

However, if indeed we are offering only two years of a college tuition entitlement, then the challenges are also shown in the statistics. Rarely does any community college student complete a degree in two years. Complete College America projected that only about 14 percent of community college students graduate after three years. That figure drops to about 10 percent for academically underprepared students who need more time to complete remedial/developmental curricula. These students account for about 60 percent of entering students according to Jobs for the Future. What would happen to financially and/or academically disadvantaged students who have not graduated by the time their entitlement runs out? In what ways would participating colleges be punished for not meeting the two year standard of graduation or transfer.

Arguments against free college tuition
D. Patrick Saxon

We are a certainly a stronger democracy as we achieve higher levels of educational attainment. However, I’m skeptical that a free college mandate will accomplish this – except perhaps, in dubious fashion by decree. Language buried in the “Building High Quality Community Colleges” section of the briefing specifies that high graduation rates are a requirement for a particular type of eligible program. And if the government wants high graduation rates, we might expect that there will be college administrators with palms wide open asking “How high?” Given the massive amounts of federal dollars at stake, the pressure to graduate students would be placed squarely at odds with instructors’ commitments to maintain course quality, academic rigor, and teaching standards.

The plan would likely change the character of our “open door” community colleges to something that may look more like “corridors.” We’re already seeing a push to establish “pathways” to college goal attainment – and language in the briefing seems inclusive of the principles in such models. In these models, students are accelerated through a curriculum that combines basic college skills instruction and learning support, along with instruction in an academic discipline or career track.

These changes are not necessarily negative. However, if the proffer of “pathway” models is required by the government as a criterion for participation as a benefit provider, then colleges would need to be equipped to effectively mainstream them. This would require substantial commitment and resource investment for instructor training, curriculum development, and the provision of proactive and well-integrated student academic support services.

It makes sense that colleges should have these types of programs in place either way – as options. We should consider however, that not every student can benefit from an accelerated curriculum. What becomes of those who need something more or different? Would they be denied the benefit? Would other instructional models be rendered “non-compliant?” Although “pathways” may indeed serve some students well, they will not work for everyone.

Given the massive amounts of federal dollars at stake, the pressure to graduate students would be placed squarely at odds with instructors’ commitments to maintain course quality, academic rigor, and teaching standards

As we know, “free” benefits must actually be paid for by that portion of citizens who pay taxes. As government budget deficits persist, future generations are our unwitting benefactors. So indeed taxpayers must foot the bill. However, the passionate debate in social media about the benefits of “free” college versus the scarcity of funding for new entitlements offered a sampling of what is likely to come with deeper federal involvement in higher education. Such a program would be rendered yet another political football in the ongoing debate about government entitlements and spending.

Finally, there will also be a cost to nonparticipating colleges. What becomes of the enrollments of four-year colleges, and of the community colleges that do not meet the regulatory requirements that qualify them as a provider of the federal benefit? This will likely cause structural shifts in enrollment, creating winners and losers among the ranks of our higher education institutions.

I’ll certainly look forward with intrigue to more details about the President’s proposal. But in the meantime, perhaps efforts would be well spent working to allocate as much funding as possible (from the $167 billion spent on federal college aid in 2014 according to the New America Foundation) to the truly financially disadvantaged members of our society. Offer college funding assistance tied to (and released upon the completion of) student performance benchmarks. Then get out of the way so that college teachers and support service professionals can do what they do best.

Dr. D. Patrick Saxon is an associate professor and director of the Developmental Education Administration Doctoral Program at Sam Houston State University. He has published extensively and is coauthor of the book Attaining Excellence in Developmental Education: Research-Based Recommendations for Administrators with Dr. Hunter Boylan. He is a Council for Learning Assistance and Developmental Education Associations fellow, the editor of Research in Developmental Education, and a member of the Executive Board of the National Association for Developmental Education.

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