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Obama’s Policy on Free Community College

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In January of 2015, President Barack Obama announced his plan to make community college free. The following sample critical analysis outlines the different sides of the argument. This sample is brought to you by Ultius, the trusted provider of content solutions. 

Those who qualify must be in school half-time or more, maintain a 2.5 or higher grade point average, and is on track to finish their current program or transfer to a four year university. This plan would cost the federal government approximately sixty billion dollars over the next decade (Song 2015). That money would cover about three quarters of the cost; the remaining quarter would come from the participating states. The intention is to slow the rapid growth of student debt, push untrustworthy for-profit universities out of business, increase college enrollment, and force United States colleges to put more resources into helping students obtain their degrees (Kingkade 2015).

It's not just the cost of the classes themselves. Materials, like books and academic journals are always going up in price. Sometimes a fee is required to just be able to access material needed for research. The only resource for some students is using research material that is pirated to save money by visiting sites such as Sci-Hub.

These policies are aimed at fixing problems in education. Students who are working towards their associate’s degree can graduate and start working without debilitating student debt while students working towards their bachelor’s degrees can essentially receive half of their college education for free.  When announcing his plan, President Obama said, “Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today.” (Kingkade 2015). The President’s administration is supportive and excited about the plan; later that day, Arne Duncan, the President’s education secretary, tweeted, “Just as free K-12 education is an educational and civil right, #FreeCommunityCollege should be as well.” (Kingkade 2015). Like every political plan, this one has both advocates and those who oppose it. Arizona Senator Kelli Ward doubts the plan’s success, stating, “The governor said we’ll be tightening purse strings, not doling out more money based on what this administration is promising.” (Kardish 2015). The plan has both pros and cons, and the passing of this law solely depends on the support- or lack thereof- from Congress.

Against Obama’s policy

There are several issues that those who oppose this idea have with Obama’s plan. First, many believe that the plan would reduce the number of options for students. Currently, each state handle their own schools individually, creating fifty different systems for students from which students can pick the one that best fits their needs. For example, states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire have more private schools than public schools while California and Michigan put more money into public universities (CCAP 2015). If higher education becomes controlled by the federal government, it creates a ‘one size fits all’ system; but that one program may not work for everyone.

Some believe that the idea of Obama’s plan is much better than the plan itself. It also has been said that the intention to reestablish our country as having the highest attainment rate in the world is unreasonable. The United States has not had the highest attainment rate in decades, making the feat seem flighty and daunting. In addition, some of the countries that have surpassed us, Japan and South Korea, to name a couple, have been able to do so due to their decreasing numbers of young people (Hauptman 2015).  In addition, a large number of attendees at community colleges come from relatively affluent families, meaning that college may be affordable for them in the first place. Very low-income students with particular need are eligible to receive Pell Grants already, which cover almost all tuition for community colleges (CCAP 2015). This causes some to believe that the plan may not be entirely as beneficial as hoped or intended (despite being more realistic than what Bernie Sanders proposed in his presidential campaign).

Efficacy concerns in terms of job placement

Another way some fear the plan may not be as effective as envisioned is that it may not make a difference in getting students higher-level jobs. Many graduates have ended up working jobs typically held by high school students. The post-graduate experience is just not as good as many would hope or expect. This may be a contributing factor in the decline in enrollment in college institutions, which is down significantly in the past few years (CCAP 2015). Many high school graduates find it much more enticing to get one year of training in a certified job program as opposed to working towards a two year college degree. 

Some also have said that this reform plan ‘declares war’ on for-profit colleges and universities. If education at community colleges is free, it will likely take business and students away from four year universities. There are some studies that suggest that students do better attending a four year college for the duration of their educational program instead of switching part of the way through. (CCAP 2015). Obama’s plan may cause perfectly reputable and respectable universities to suffer.

Other concerns about Obama’s plan for free community college are fiscal. Currently, the United States is eighteen trillion dollars in debt and tends to have difficulties maintaining the federal budget. The government has already experienced its first credit downgrade in modern American history (CCAP 2015). Currently, the country also has several unfunded liabilities, such as the Social Security program and the Medicare program. Some fear taking on more fiscal responsibility when we are already so far into debt and already have enough economic problems to take care of.

In addition to all these other issues, the plan has been compared to the Bush administration setting incredibly unrealistic goals, left to be attained by the next person in office. It is feared by some that the implementation of this plan may have more negative consequences than positive.

Support for Obama’s free community college plan

Supporters of Obama’s plan draw on the fact that a college education has become dauntingly expensive. Colleges in the United States have been unable, or unwilling, to control their costs. Meanwhile, pressed for room in their budgets, many states have cut the majority of their per-student funding. This has led to drastic increases in college tuition (Weissmann 2015). To combat this without putting too much weight onto states or their schools, the government has instead thus far elected to offer grants, loans, and tax breaks as an alternate means to affording higher education. However, financial aid has made it possible for states to cut appropriations and for schools to increase tuition without negatively effecting enrollment. Some schools even go so far as to lure in low-income and underprepared students in order to rake in money from their federal loans and grants (Weissman 2015). These things, combined with the current economic state, result in piles of student loans.

By reinvesting in the United States’ public colleges, tuition can stay down. It has been suggested that tuition could be free at state-schools if the money spent on financial aid for private schools was redirected into the public school system (Weissmann 2015). The implementation of Obama’s plan would help to encourage states to keep the costs of community college down, which can break the horrific cycle of rapidly increasing costs and the rising need for government aid.

Reduced government spending on financial aid

Another reason many are in support of Obama’s plan is that it would not cost the government as much money as federal aid currently does. The plan would cost an estimated sixty billion dollars from the federal government and about twenty billion more from the state governments. Currently, the government disperses sixty eight billion dollars every year for financial aid and state governments disperse billions more (Weissman 2015). This free community college program would greatly decrease the amount of money needed for financial aid and free up more money in the federal government’s budget. While some fear that his plan will cost too much money, after financial aid is taken into account, the average low-income student pays nothing in tuition (Weissman 2015). Also, the program would allow students to use grants and other financial aid to cover living, transportation, and textbook expenses. This can potentially enable some students to have to work fewer hours, thus giving them more time to attend school full-time, making them more likely to graduate. 

Another positive impact this plan would have is that it would decrease the dropout rate at community colleges, meaning more people would finish their degrees. The National Student Clearinghouse estimates that sixty one percent of first-time undergraduate students who enroll in classes eventually dropout and never finish any degree program within six years (Weissmann 2015). Obama’s plan would allow students to spend less time working and more time studying.

The idea of free community college for American students offers promising and exciting new possibilities. In Tennessee, nearly ninety percent of graduating seniors in high school have registered for the state’s new free community college program (Kahlenberg 2015). This allows students to receive a college education when they might not have otherwise been able to afford one. In addition, it eliminates complicated financial aid forms and procedures, drawing in even more participants. This program can also lessen the divide amongst high and low income families, causing students who come from higher income families give community colleges a second look and giving low income students more opportunity to attend state universities (Kahlenberg 2015). This is a much larger problem than one might expect, as the ratio of wealthy students to poor students in selective four-year universities is 14:1 (Kahlenberg 2015). Economic segregation is damaging to any economy, and Obama’s community college plan can help to eradicate that. 

Summary of main arguments for free community college

President Barack Obama’s plan to make two-year community college programs free to students, who qualify, while inspired by good intentions, was not met with overwhelming support all around. There are some who are avidly against the plan for a number of reasons. First, some fear that it could decrease the number of options available to students so that they can find a program that works best for them. Second, some believe that the goal to make the United States one of the top names in higher education is lofty and unattainable, and spending money to meet these goals would be a waste of resources. Third, those who oppose this plan believe that making community college free may not make an astronomical difference for students in the long run; now, more than ever, college graduates are finding it difficult to find higher-level jobs and end up working jobs typically help by high school students. Fourth, some anticipate that this program will take money and business away from upstanding and reputable state schools in favor of community colleges. And fifth, does the United States really have the money to be funding such a large and far-reaching program? Despite these reasons, many support the plan as well.

Many believe that this plan will force colleges to keep student interests in mind and make sure their education is affordable, reducing reliance on student loan forgiveness. In addition, opposite of what the opposition might think, this plan could actually save the government, both federal and state, billions of dollars. Also, the implementation of this plan could help ensure that dropout rates decrease as the number of students who have the opportunity to receive higher education increases. Like most issues, both sides of this argument present compelling and important information. In this particular case, the only thing that can decide if this plan will pass or be denied is Congress. The debate over this issue is sure to be yet another riveting and significant thread in the fabric of American history.

Works Cited

CCAP. “Six Reasons Why Obama’s Free Community College Is a Poor Investment”. Forbes. Forbes, 11 Jan. 2015. Web. 17 Jan. 2015. 

Hauptman, Arthur M. “There is No (Tuition-) Free Lunch”. Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 14 Jan. 2015. Web. 17 Jan. 2015. 

Kahlenberg, Richard D. “The Genius of Obama’s Two-Year College Proposal”. The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 12 Jan. 2015. Web. 17 Jan 2015.

Kardish, Chris. “Where Obama’s Free Community –College Plan Fails, Tennessee’s May Succeed”. Governing The States and Localities. Governing, 13 Jan 2015. Web. 17 Jan 2015. 

Kingkade, Tyler. “Obama’s Free Community College Plan Promises To Shake Up Higher Ed”. The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post Inc, 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 17 Jan. 2015. 

Song, Jason. “The nuts and bolts of Obama’s community college plan”. The LA Times. The Los Angeles Times, 14 Jan. 2015. Web. 18 Jan. 2015.

Weissmann, Jordan. “Kludge Not: Obama’s plan for free community college is elegant and forward-thinking-unlike virtually all U.S. policy fixes”. Slate. The Slate Group, 13 Jan. 2015. Web. 17 Jan. 2015.

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