President’s Free Community College Plan a Game Changer, But also a Long Shot

by Reggie Fullwood

“Education is a precondition to survival in America today,” said Marian Wright Edelman.

Certainly, that belief is rooted at the foundation of President Obama’s announcement last week that he believes that community college should be free to all Americans. The president’s plan is being called  “America’s College Promise,” would cover students’ tuition for qualifying community college programs, so long as students maintain a 2.5 GPA.
According to the President, “Put simply, what I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for anybody who’s willing to work for it.”

He added, “It’s something we can accomplish, and it’s something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anyone in the world.”

But will Republicans support the President’s plan? Well, first of all – it’s not really an original concept. Obama’s plan is modeled after the Tennessee Promise, which is a state-funded free community college program starting this fall, paid for with Tennessee Lottery proceeds.

Of course, Tennessee has a Republican Governor and GOP led legislature that supported the plan.

And to state the obvious, Washington D.C. is a totally different monster; but at least the President can tout the fact that a GOP governor and state legislature from a very conservative state supports the initiative. Again, D.C. is a different beast and Republicans have been are reluctant to give the President any policy victories.

Despite the uphill battle, the White House expects 9 million students to participate at a cost of nearly $70 billion. The federal government would pay three quarters of the cost and ask states to pay for the balance, which will obviously be another major criticism to the plan.

The other criticism is the capacity issue – some “experts” are already saying that the 1,100 community colleges around the nation don’t have the capacity or resources to properly educate such a large influx of students.

So there’s the Republican issue, capacity concerns, and then there is the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) issue.

On the surface I think that the President is right on point and this community college issue is a bold initiative that we all should support, but for blacks there is a two ton elephant in the room.

Black colleges and religious institutions have been a strong foundation in the African American community. Because, as James Baldwin once said, “A child cannot be taught by someone who despises him.”

In fact, schools like Edward Waters College were formed by churches specifically for the education of blacks after slavery.

So it is obvious that HBCUs have played a critical role in this country since they were established in the face of Jim Crow, segregation, and the systematic degradation of schools in minority communities.

So how would a free community college system effect black schools?

Over the past several years many HBCUs have struggled financially and many have faced challenges in building their enrollment up. We know that for minority students, the cost associated with going to college is often the number one barrier.

So if the community college is free for the first two years and Bethune Cookman University costs roughly $14,000 a year – some students will make their decision based on the dollars and cents of the issue.

For students entering college from high school, HBCUs may certainly be a much more attractive school because of the culture, tradition, on campus housing and sports.
But for older students who have families, bills and are already in the workforce, community colleges are certainly a much better option because of the multiple campus locations and costs.

Obama said a world-class education starts with children, but that adults need training, too. “It’s not just for kids, we also have to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages, better benefits.”

Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, recently said, “My fear is a real one and that this is going to significantly, negatively impact private HBCUs and I think it’s going to have some negative impact on public HBCUs.”

He added, “Mama and Daddy are going to say, ‘If you can go to community college for free, that’s where you are going the first two years.’ So, what you have essentially done is cut in half the revenue for private HBCUs. Private HBCUs are going to feel this in a way you can’t even imagine.”

The HBCU dilemma could be a prime example of the law of unintended consequences.

Despite the uphill battle to get the initiative approved by Congress and other challenges, the President’s plan is bold and worth supporting.
Signing off from FSCJ,
Reggie Fullwood

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