Hard promises

Due to print deadlines, this editorial will be written after President Barack Obama’s America’s College Promise announcement, http://1.usa.gov/1FzlV8m, but before his State of the Union address. We here at the Reno News & Review expect that this story will develop pretty quickly in the coming weeks, but we want to get into the fray early because the plan to provide free community college to everyone who maintains a 2.5 GPA while attending college at least half-time has a lot of moving parts, some of which aren’t necessarily good. In other words, it’s not as simple as “free college.”

First off, Pell grants already pay for low-income students to attend community college. That means the money would go to the students who can already afford to go to school. That, in itself, may not be bad, but it certainly raises questions about the fiscal reasoning behind this plan. And if it does indeed tax the 529 plans that many parents have paid into for years on the government promise that the investment would not be taxed, then it’s potentially taking money directly from some low-income-but-responsible families and giving it to families that can already afford to pay without saving plans.

But think about how community colleges are actually used by students. Many students go to community colleges to take remedial and 100-level classes because they’re cheaper than taking them at four-year colleges. Many students attend community colleges in order to take classes to advance a career or to take career-oriented classes that aren’t offered at four-year schools. In other words, it’s often not about the degree, it’s about either personal improvement or academic buttressing.

Many of the early critics of this plan say the problem isn’t affordability or getting students into community college, it’s about getting them to graduate with an associate’s degree. Again, those of us who have attended community college would question whether we entered with a plan of graduating from the community college, despite the requirement that we declare an intention. Spending $60 billion over 10 years isn’t going to change the reasons students attend community college. It isn’t going to help the students who are already being helped, and there’s no real reason to assume it will improve graduation rates.

This puts thoughtful people in a really awkward position. Of course, education is one of the best ways a human being can improve himself or herself. Community colleges offer many courses that are more trade- and skills-oriented than a typical four-year (five-year) college or university offers. Community colleges are also important bridges to higher education for people who—maybe for linguistic reasons or because they attended a lower-performing high school system, like Nevada’s—would have trouble jumping right into a bachelor’s program.

This idea has potential for improving the United States’ competitive stature in the world by giving our people a leg-up into higher education, but it might be a false hope, particularly in the context of the Republican Congress Obama will be working with in the next two years.