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Pennsylvania

Obama's free community college tuition plan raises doubts

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

The Obama administration's pitch to have federal and state governments pay for students' community college tuition sounds good to educators, but it raises questions — and some eyebrows — about implementing another big federal program.

The idea and its $60 billion federal price tag over 10 years would have to clear a Republican Congress that shows little appetite for big new spending. President Obama, who plans to push the issue in his State of the Union address Jan. 20, said that providing educational opportunity and forming a skilled workforce should not be a partisan issue.

“Community college should be free for those willing to work for it because, in America, a quality education should not be a privilege that is reserved for a few,” he said in a speech Friday at Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee, where community college will be tuition-free next fall. He said a high school diploma no longer is enough for American workers to compete in the global economy and that a college degree is “the surest ticket to the middle class.”

Nicholas Neupauer, president of Butler County Community College and chair of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, said Obama's proposal shows “how the pendulum has swung in favor of community college, primarily for affordability, quality and putting graduates into high-priority occupations.”

Many support increasing access to higher education, but some wonder whether the president's America's College Promise proposal is the best way to do that. It would combine 75 percent federal and 25 percent state funds to pay tuition for students enrolled in approved training programs or those providing the first two years of a four-year degree, provided students are enrolled at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 grade-point average.

The administration estimates 9 million students could benefit from the program.

Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, who testified before Congress as a financial aid expert, cautioned that Obama may be overstating the benefits and reshuffling money. He said only about a third of community college students maintain a 2.5 GPA with a sufficient course load to qualify.

The requirements “would eliminate more than a million community college students from aid eligibility,” Kantrowitz said.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who was secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, said there is no need for another government program to underwrite tuition.

“Reduce federal paperwork for the ridiculous 108-question student aid application form, which discourages 2 million Americans from applying for federal Pell grants that are already available to help pay community college tuition,” Alexander suggested.

He said community college tuition, averaging $3,347 a year nationwide, can be greatly reduced when students receive aid from existing grant programs.

In Pennsylvania, where 201,910 students are enrolled in credit courses at 14 community colleges, officials viewed Obama's proposal with cautious optimism.

Quintin Bullock, president of Community College of Allegheny County, said nearly 29,000 students, two-thirds of them part-time, might benefit. The college could work with businesses to set up programs to meet demand for technically trained people, he said.

“I'd just love to see this happen,” Bullock said.

Westmoreland County Community College President Tuesday Stanley said programs at the Advanced Technology Center in East Huntingdon fit well with Obama's proposal. The college is “poised to continue to promote career training and degree programs that transfer,” she said.

“I think any time access to education is increased, it is a positive step forward in economic vitality,” Stanley said.

But David Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council, said helping colleges with infrastructure costs for labs, computers and equipment might lead to lower tuition.

Laura Fisher, senior vice president with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said many employers no longer invest in on-the-job training since employees can be lured away by bigger paychecks elsewhere.

Predictability might be the big benefit of Obama's program if it comes to pass, she said. Community college students have a hard time finishing school because they can't afford their classes.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Staff writers Kari Andren, Megha Satyanarayana and Jodi Weigand and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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