Not So Fast on Free Tuition Proposal

Community Colleges Not Entirely on Board or of One Mind


President Obama proposed two free years of community college at the 2015 State of the Union address. Highlights include tuition-free classes for students maintaining at least a half time school schedule, a GPA of 2.5 or higher, and making steady progress toward a degree or transferring to a four-year institution.


Obama maintained that “bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need,” and that this situation is “not smart for our future.”


While community college is already the more affordable option, the gap is closing. In only 10 years, tuition per credit at Linn-Benton Community College (LBCC) has steadily increased from $40.24 in 2003 to $93.80 in 2013, and this does not include fees. That means that a local student taking 15 credits would have shouldered a financial burden of $645 for tuition and fees per term, not including books and living costs. Total tuition and fees at LBCC are $1,485.10 per term, $4,455.30 per year. Compare that to Oregon State’s $3,040.57 per term ($9,121.71 per year) cost for tuition and fees.


But what are the community colleges saying about this?


Dr. Gregory Hamann, president of LBCC, stated that free tuition “must support student productivity, equity, and quality,” and wonders if there is a “more effective means of applying limited resources to the goal of increased post-secondary degree and certificate completion.” He urges “educational leaders and the Legislature to give serious consideration to [other] approaches before putting significant resources into ‘free tuition.’” Hamann seems to not be totally against free tuition, but thinks that there are better, other means to reach the same or better ends. That seems to make sense; the president of the college needs to get paid somehow, and resources are limited no matter how much enrollment increases, which is a concern for the colleges if this bill passes.


Dr. Jeremy Brown, president of Portland Community College (PCC), said that the “details of the President’s proposal would need to be tailored to meet specific needs at the local level; it is encouraging that aid will be available to community college students, including those in greatest need.” Ultimately, the sentiment from Brown was that the scope of free tuition wasn’t quite large enough. He wants to continue to offer resources that help students reach their goals. He is excited to work with the community and the partners of the college to improve access to higher education, saying that “no matter where this specific proposal goes, we’re committed to working with our partners at every level on the critical issues of affordability, access, and quality that are at the heart of our mission.”


Both college presidents seem to have the same ultimate goals in mind—they are concerned with continuing to offer resources to their students, both current and future. They want to improve access, but are somewhat concerned that the proposal is either not enough, or too much. Either way, it’s good to be talking about these issues. Community college is at the heart of many personal narratives, but rarely on the national stage. For the United States president to be talking about making community college affordable for all may be just the discussion starter we need.