Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

A Critical Look at "America's College Promise"

By Margaret McGranePublished February 18, 2015

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President Obama's most recent policy proposal, "America's College Promise", may further privatize four-year institutions and fuel the continuing shift of the middle class into two year institutions.
On January 9th President Obama spoke at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville Tennessee. It was there that he introduced his newest initiative, America's College Promise, a program that would make community college free. The plan has largely arisen in response to the growing number of low-income household's struggling to afford higher education. While well-intentioned, the program has generated considerable controversy.

Little information about how the initiative will be financed has been released, causing doubt that the plan will make it through the Republican-dominated Congress. The White House anticipates 9 million students to take advantage of the program over ten years, amounting to $60 billion dollars, 75% of which will be burdened by the federal government and the remaining 25% shouldered by participating state governments.

Outspoken critiques of the proposal are calling for the $60 billion to instead be invested in expanding the existing Pell Grant program. Created in 1972, the Pell Grant program awards yearly grants to needy students that do not have to be repaid. All eligible students that apply receive a grant, the size of which is determined by demonstrated financial need, enrollment status, and cost of attendance [https://studentaid.ed.gov/types/grants-scholarships/pell]. In 2013 the grants served roughly 9.4 million students at a cost of $33.6 billion [https://www.cbo.gov/publication/44448]. The grants can be used at any of the approximately 5,400 participating postsecondary schools. The benefit of the Pell program is that it allows students to select an institution that best fits their needs and aspirations, be it a community college or non-profit four year institution.

There are also serious concerns about whether or not the program will actually benefit low-income students. The average cost of attending community college is approximately $4,000 dollars a year, excluding additional fees, food, books, and miscellaneous expenses. The maximum Pell grant award for the 2014-2015 academic year is $5,775. Consequently, President Obama's proposal is inconsequential to the neediest students, who are already receiving maximum Pell Grant awards and attending community college for free. It is important to note that the program does have the potential to assist the near-poor, living above the artificial poverty line but on the razor's edge of subsistence. These families may only be receiving partial Pell Grant awards, able to make up the differences but requiring prudent financial planning. There is however, the potential that the program would merely subsidizing the cost of community college for students whose families could have otherwise afforded the tuition.

The program has generated concern that a public monopoly on post-secondary associate degree programs may ensue, as is the case in the American K-12 education system. Online degree programs, for-profit two year schools, and less prestigious four year schools will find it increasingly more difficult to compete with "free", eventually forcing them out of the market. What we are left with are two extremes, free two year institutions and, often exorbitantly priced, private four year ones. The ultimate effect may be the further privatization of four-year institutions as the middle class finds themselves in the precarious position of being "too poor for college, [and] too rich for financial aid".

Expanding the Pell program is a more cogent approach because it would increase accessibility for all Americans to attend a school that best fits their needs, be it a four or two year institution. Since 1988 the average college tuition has climbed over 130% while middle class incomes, on average, have remained relatively stagnant. Over the last decade the Department of Education has reported a decline of middle class enrollment in four-year institutions and a rise in their attendance at two-year ones. The shift of middle class students from bachelor to associate degree programs has the effect of reducing American's competitiveness in the global labor market.

Regardless of the approach a clear need exists to increase the accessibility of higher education to a greater range of students. Democrats and Republicans alike can rally around increasing higher education rates, and consequently our competitiveness in the global labor market.

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