The Promise of College: America’s Next Educational Milestone

By Anna Cielinski and Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield

Last week, President Obama proposed making two years of community college free. The plan, called America’s College Promise, would create a new federal-state partnership to eliminate tuition for “responsible” students—those who attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program.

CLASP commends the Administration for placing college access and completion at the top of its agenda. The president’s proposal is an improvement on other programs that are designed to offer “free” community college tuition, because this new proposal would particularly benefit non-traditional students, including those who are older and those who attend college part-time. America’s College Promise would be especially valuable to non-traditional students because its funds could be used to help offset living expenses, which often are the greatest barriers for students who attend relatively low-tuition community colleges. The Administration estimates as many as 9 million students will benefit.

The proposal would cover both academic and occupational programs at community colleges, provided that the programs are “high quality.” The Administration characterizes high-quality academic programs as those that would fully transfer to a four-year college or university, while high-quality occupational programs would have high graduation rates and lead to in-demand credentials. In addition, according to the Administration, the funding would not supplant current Pell Grants to low-income students, but instead would serve as a “first dollar” contribution that pays for tuition and fees up-front, leaving any remaining Pell Grant funds to cover living expenses.

This is a significant improvement over the existing plans in Tennessee and Chicago, which offer “last dollar” funding that does not benefit Pell Grant recipients whose Pell grant covers all or most tuition and fees. Living expenses are often the largest out-of-pocket expense for low-income students, and can be a major roadblock to attending college at all, or can lead to increased work hours or part-time attendance, both of which can have negative impacts on persistence and completion.    

The proposal also seeks to increase state investments in community colleges by requiring a state contribution to the effort. In states that choose to participate, federal funding will cover 75 percent of the average tuition and fees for community college, with states covering the remaining 25 percent in funding. By sending a clear message that community college can be “free,” this plan could expand awareness about the full array of financial supports available, which in turn could encourage more individuals to consider postsecondary education or job training who wouldn’t otherwise have thought that it was possible. 

The president’s plan is also an improvement because it includes part-time and older students. Part-time attendance is driven by factors including work and family responsibilities. Tuition assistance programs that are only available for full-time students fail to help the majority of community college students. In 2012, 59 percent of community college students attended part-time. However, we are disappointed that the Administration’s plan does not go far enough to include individuals who attend less than half-time, as studies have shown that most students attending less-than-half-time are doing so temporarily due to family demands or changes in work and school schedules. We commend the Administration’s proposal for including those who President Obama calls the “young at heart”—students of all ages, not only those who have recently graduated from high school. With 4 in 10 undergraduate students in 2014 age 25 or older, programs that restrict eligibility to recent high school graduates fall short in expanding access to today’s community college students.   

Overall, the president’s proposal takes a crucial step in the right direction. As with the movement a century ago for all students to complete high school, this new proposal has the potential to dramatically increase the expectation of postsecondary education or job training for all Americans, not just those who can afford tuition.  We look forward to hearing more about the president’s plan at the State of the Union address and reviewing the details in his budget request to Congress in February. We strongly encourage Congress to consider seriously the value of these investments.