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Free for the Taking?

On Tuesday, January 20, 2015, President Obama covered a variety of issues during his State of the Union address, but America’s College Promise stuck out to many Americans desirous of free community college. “Put simply: what I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who’s willing to work for it. That’s right, free for everybody who’s willing to work for it. It’s something that we can accomplish, and it’s something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anybody in the world.”

Who can argue with free education? After all, as President Obama pointed out, grades K-12 are already free to the public, so why not the first two years of college, as well? But as we have all learned one time or another, nothing is ever truly free.  America’s College Promise promises to cost 60 billion over a 10-year period.

The Qualifications for Students – America’s College Promise requires a bare minimum standard for student applicants. Students must be enrolled at least half-time and maintain a GPA of at least a 2.5 as they progress steadily towards degree completion in three years.  Can students with a C-average really “compete with anybody in the world? At many universities, a 2.5 GPA does not even qualify a student for many scholarships, so should not the GPA requirement be raised to allow students to have the satisfaction of truly earning it? In addition, a dependent student’s family must not make a yearly income over $200,000. This generous yearly income cap qualifies students who probably do not need the tuition help, thus taking aid from truly needy students. The GPA requirement should be raised, while the family income amount lowered, so that motivated students that really are in need can qualify to receive help.

The Qualifications for Community Colleges – Colleges that want to offer America’s College Promise must first offer academic courses that will transfer to a 4-year school. Second, the school must offer “promising evidence-based institutional reforms” and state support as well. Where is the money coming from to make these reforms? The plan transfers the responsibility of tuition from the student to the state. America’s College Promise does this by requiring the state to supply 25% of the free community college, and the government picks up the tab for the rest.

Is Anything Truly Free? Granted, the phrase, “free college” appeals to most people. College students would love nothing more than to have the financial burden of pursuing higher education lifted from their weary shoulders. But “free” is a term we skeptically consider too good to be true. This plan has major flaws. The plan would undoubtedly get more students to start community college, but it will not ensure more students will graduate. What is the goal of this plan – to get more starters, or more finishers?

What Makes a Student Graduate? Federal data shows that only 31% of first time, full-time students graduate within 3 years. Is this because students do not have the funds college requires, or because they do not have the preparation and maturity college demands? President Obama assumes that the dropout rate rests solely on inability to pay.

At many community colleges in California, students pay as low as $1,500 for an entire year of college. Many of those same students qualify for Pell grants which then make their tuition practically free. But according to a state wide survey of California community colleges, only 26% of enrolled students in California from 2008-2014 actually graduated. So if tuition is the sole barrier keeping students from graduating, why did well over half of the students enrolled in the cheapest community colleges in the country fail to graduate? Conversely, at community colleges in Wisconsin and North Dakota, where tuition is almost three times higher than that of California, students show slightly higher completion rates of around 34%. Data like this shows that success for students is not necessarily linked directly to low tuition, but perhaps to more intrinsic factors like personal motivation and readiness, or even the quality of education.

America’s Response – America’s College Promise is not really free for the taking. Giving people free education does not ensure 100% success. President Obama did not factor in that starting college does not equal finishing college. Just because enrollment rates are high does not necessarily mean graduation rates are too. We need community colleges that equip students with real-world experiences and offer course work that grows their natural strengths to be effective in the work force. Our Nation was founded on Christian principles and beliefs, one of those being the concept of a hard work ethic. Even the Bible points to the value of hard work in 2 Thessalonians 3:10b, “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” We are not entitled to free education. Many people have discovered that the possessions they value the most are those they have sacrificed to get. Giving someone free education may strip them of the value of it. It is for this reason that Americans should be skeptical of President Obama’s pitch for free community college.

Source: Outlook Magazine, Abby Bailey

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