States eye free community college tuition

Community college tuition could be free to high school graduates in Tennessee, Mississippi and Oregon.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam proposed making two years of a community or technical college education free in his State of the State address. “Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless.”

“We just needed to change the culture of expectations in our state,” the governor told the New York Times. “College is not for everybody, but it has to be for a lot more people than it’s been in the past if we’re going to have a competitive work force.”

Community college costs only $3,800 a year in Tennessee, just above the national average. With help from Pell Grants, most students pay little or nothing in tuition and fees. However eliminating tuition would enable lower-income students to use their Pell aid to pay for books, supplies, transportation and living expenses.

The “Tennessee Promise” will have a psychological impact, Haslam predicted. Many people don’t realize community and technical colleges are affordable. “If we can go to people and say, ‘This is totally free,’ that gets their attention.”

The plan would cover Tennessee’s 13 community colleges, which grant academic degrees, and 27 technical colleges, which provide job training. The technical system is nationally known for high success rates.

The net cost to the state isn’t really zero, but Haslam estimated diverting lottery revenue would cover the $34 million a year.

Mr. Haslam also called for Tennessee’s public colleges to make a new effort to recruit the state’s nearly one million adults who have some college credits but ended their educations without earning degrees or professional certificates. And he proposed expanding a program that gives particular help to struggling high school students so they can go to college without needing remedial classes that do not earn college credit; studies have shown that students who take remedial courses are far less likely to graduate.

High school graduates in Mississippi could attend community college for free for two years under a bill being considered in the Legislature, reports the Clarion-Ledger. Scholarships would be available to students younger than 21 who enroll full-time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

The idea started at Meridian Community College, which began offering what it calls a “tuition guarantee” in fall 1996, using privately donated money.

Oregon legislators also may study whether it’s feasible to let high school graduates attend community college for free. “If we get this right, I think we can unleash a tremendous amount of motivation within these young people, giving them the motivation to stay in school, to get a certificate, to achieve that additional learning that can make a difference in terms of their economic success,” Gov. John Kitzhaber told the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee.

 whether free community colleges is feasible.

Feds could make public colleges tuition free

Public colleges and universities could be tuition free for $62.6 billion, writes Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic. That’s how much tuition state schools collected from undergrads in 2012, according to Department of Education data. That’s less than the $69 billion the feds spent last year “on its hodgepodge of financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants for low-income students, tax breaks and work study funding,” writes Weissmann. “And that doesn’t even include loans.”

Washington could make public college tuition free with the money it sets aside its scattershot attempts to make college affordable today.

. . . rather than simply using our resources to maintain a cheap public system (and remember, public schools educate 75 percent of undergrads), we spill them into a fairly wasteful and expensive private sector. At one point, a Senate investigation found that the for-profit sector alone was chowing down on 25 percent of all federal aid dollars.

Actually, the feds would spend less than $62.6 billion to cover tuition because most of the $21.8 billion in Pell Grants is spent at state colleges and universities, Weissmann writes. However, state and local governments would have to continue their higher education subsidies.

Students at residential colleges would have to pay for room and board. Those choosing the private sector . . . Well, this plan would wipe out all but the elite, well-funded private nonprofit colleges and nearly all the for-profit sector.

St. Louis college cuts tuition for undocumented

St. Louis Community College will cut tuition for undocumented students with a Missouri high school diploma, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

Nearby Illinois and at least 17 states offer in-state rates to undocumented state high school graduates but the college’s move is a first for Missouri.

“It’s a huge need. It’s important to give every single kid a chance at education and getting out of that cycle of poverty,” said Virginia Braxs, president of the Hispanic Arts Council. “I think it’s amazing, amazing news. There is a real chance to be part of the American dream.”

“Clearly, there’s a big affordability gap,” said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president of Edvisors Network and an expert on college financing.

CC funding improves in most states

Community college funding is recovering, but two-year college systems remain under stress in many states, according a new survey, Halfway Out of Recession But A Long Way to Go. The Education Policy Center of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa surveys community college directors annually.

Only directors in five states — Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana and Wyoming — reported mid-year budget cuts in 2012-13. In 2008-9, two-thirds of states were reporting such cuts.

Looking ahead, most state directors are predicting increases for this year for community colleges, with the average increase projected to be 4 percent. Only five states — Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina and West Virginia — are projecting decreases in 2013-14.

The state directors report considerable worry about the ability of students to pay for college. Most states are projecting tuition increases, and a majority expect state student aid programs to either be cut or to increase at less than the rate of inflation for higher education.

Many directors expect rising enrollments as four-year institutions impose enrollment caps.


CC students are ‘second-class citizens in Ohio

Ohio’s community college students are “second-class citizens” when it comes to Ohio College Opportunity Grants, editorializes the Toledo Blade.

Community college tuitions average $3,800 a year — about one-third that of those at four-year schools — in Ohio.

In 2009, the General Assembly cut the OCOG budget from roughly $395 million to $171 million. Making matters worse, it also forced low-income students to use federal Pell grants to cover tuition expenses at community colleges before tapping state grants. Those changes made nearly all community college students ineligible for OCOG.

Unlike Pell grants, state grants cover tuition only. And because tuition is low at community colleges, Pell grants typically cover students’ tuition.

Before the changes, 20,000 community college students in Ohio received state grants.

Ohio needs legislation that would permit community college students to, first, use OCOG to cover tuition costs, thereby enabling them to tap federal Pell grants for other college-related expenses. That change also would call for setting aside another $20 million a year to cover the more than 20,000 newly eligible community college students.

Last year, as Ohio began to refund OCOG, money was set aside to fund for-profit college students but not community college students, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Oregon eyes tuition-free community college

Community college would be tuition-free for two years for most Oregon high school graduates, under a proposal by Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, reports the Statesman-Journal.

“There are thousands of kids who come out of our schools that don’t go on to higher education, and that’s just not a viable path into the middle class,” said Hass, who is the chairman of the Senate Education & Workforce Development Committee.

Preliminary estimates show that funding tuition could cost about $250 million if 31,962 high school graduates attended an Oregon community college full time for two years. Average cost for a credit at a state community college is an estimated $85.94.

High school graduates would need a 2.0 grade point average to qualify.

It’s not clear how Oregon would fund the idea, but Hass says the state will save money in the long run if more young people are educated.

Elizabeth Cox Brand, the director of communications and research at the state department of Community Colleges & Workforce Development, called the state’s community colleges the “heart and soul” of Oregon’s “40-40-20” goal.

The goal is that 40 percent of adults will earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40 percent earn an associate’s degree or post-secondary credential and the remaining 20 percent earn a high school diploma or equivalent. By 2025, that would mean all Oregonians would earn at least a high school diploma.

Gov. John Kitzhaber’s education policy advisor, Ben Cannon, said the governor supports the idea of funding community college tuition for high school graduates. “What’s very clear is that the combination of rising tuition, fees, and cost of living has meant that too few Oregon school students see post-secondary education as a viable option,” he said.

Here’s how to ‘shake up’ higher ed

If President Obama really wants to “shake up” higher education, he should start by scaling back student loans, writes economist Richard Vedder on Washington Monthly‘s College Guide. That means dropping loans to affluent parents and the federal tuition tax credit, limiting student borrowing and, ultimately, getting the federal government out of the student-loan business.

Colleges that benefit from student loans and grants should share some costs of high default rates, Vedder argues. That would discourage colleges from enrolling students with little chance of success. (Politically, this is a big loser.)

Next, consumers need better information, he writes.

Lots of students enter college based on bad advice, often from guidance counselors and school marketing efforts. Politicians make things worse with a “college for all” mantra, implying life will be a failure without a college degree to provide the ticket to the moderately affluent middle class.

To counteract the propaganda, a bill proposed by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, would mandate the disclosure of information regarding post-graduation earnings of students by college and major. Polls show that college students’ single biggest goal is achieving financial success.

Colleges are expensive screening devices, writes Vedder. There should be other ways to demonstrate potential workplace competence.”Why doesn’t someone (College Board? Educational Testing Service? Google Inc.?) develop a national college equivalency examination that tests for the critical learning skills, literacy and basic knowledge that all college graduates are expected to have?”

A credible exam would reduce the worry about low-quality online courses and make it easier for students to assemble courses from multiple providers.

Finally, Vedder calls for eliminating barriers to entry to higher education.

The single largest obstacle is the dysfunctional accrediting system, which is rife with conflicts of interest and gives consumers little information. . . . Arguably, we should eliminate accreditation as such, with the government simply defunding programs that fail to meet minimum standards (such as institutions with student-loan-default rates greater than graduation rates).

Lowering the demand for college slots and increasing the supply of higher ed providers would bring costs down.

Non-elite colleges hit by enrollment drop

The “enrollment boom that swelled American colleges — and helped drive up their prices — is over, notes the New York Times.

College enrollment fell 2 percent in 2012-13, the first significant decline since the 1990s, but nearly all of that drop hit for-profit and community colleges; now, signs point to 2013-14 being the year when traditional four-year, nonprofit colleges begin a contraction that will last for several years. The college-age population is dropping after more than a decade of sharp growth, and many adults who opted out of a forbidding job market and went back to school during the recession have been drawn back to work by the economic recovery.

The most prestigious colleges aren’t affected, but less-elite private colleges, which tend to be dependent on tuition revenue, could have trouble staying afloat.

Obama vows college cost controls

President Obama vowed to “shake up” higher education and “tackle rising costs,” in a speech Wednesday at Knox College. “It is critical that we make sure that college is affordable for every single American who’s willing to work for it,” said Obama, stressing college affordability for middle-class families.

“Families and taxpayers can’t just keep paying more and more and more into an undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up. We’ll never have enough loan money, we’ll never have enough grant money, to keep up with costs that are going up 5, 6, 7 percent a year. We’ve got to get more out of what we pay for,” Obama said.

“Now, some colleges are testing new approaches to shorten the path to a degree, or blending teaching with online learning to help students master material and earn credits in less time.  In some states, they’re testing new ways to fund college based not just on how many students enroll, but how many of them graduate, how well did they do,” he said.

In the 2012 State of the Union address, Obama put colleges “on notice” that federal funding would be linked to controlling tuition increases, notes Inside Higher Ed. That hasn’t happened. At other times, Obama has blamed rising tuition on state budget cuts.

Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, and a formerly a policy adviser in the Obama administration’s Education Department, agrees with the sentiments of the president’s talk Wednesday, but was unsure how much change higher education will see. “I think it’s encouraging rhetoric, but pulling it off will take serious political will and capital,” she said. “I’m wondering if his tone suggests he’s going to try to do this with executive authority.”

Laitinen said that there may seem to be a consensus on the issue of tuition rates, with college leaders and politicians alike worried about the impact of rising sticker prices. But she said this consensus only goes so far. “All of the solutions you are seeing don’t force institutions to change at all,” she said.

As an example, she noted that there is widespread interest in expanding options for income-based repayment of loans. In part, she said, “that’s because it does not fundamentally require a rethinking of the business model. It allows institutions to charge as much as they want.”

Becky Timmons, assistant vice president of government relations at the American Council on Education, suggested the president might offer federal grants to colleges that limit tuition increases. ”I don’t see any tool or leverage available to him to set price controls.”

Early reaction on Capitol Hill was mixed, reports Ed Week.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., cutting campus-based financial aid hurts students, not colleges. “Federal taxpayer funding for colleges and universities is almost all through grants and loans that go to about 20 million students, so his threat to reduce federal spending for colleges is really a threat to cut federal aid to students,” Alexander said.

As Obama was speaking, the Senate passed a bipartisan student loan bill that will lower interest rates now, but will let them rise with government borrowing costs. Undergraduate loans are capped at 8.25 percent, graduate loans at 9.5 percent and PLUS loans at 10.5 percent. The House is expected to pass the compromise bill, which has Obama’s support.

Cato: Aid fuels tuition inflation

Student aid fuels tuition inflation by encouraging “students to demand stuff they otherwise wouldn’t” and enabling colleges to raise their prices, argues Neal McCluskey on Cato @ Liberty.  He links to a list of studies that show schools “capture aid money rather than becoming more affordable.”

The Senate has reached a bipartisan deal on student loans, reports CNN.  ”Under the compromise measure, undergraduate students would pay a rate of 3.85% next year on subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans. The plan would cap rates on loans to undergrads at 8.25%, for graduate students at 9.5% and parents at 10.5%.”