President Obama proposes free college

January 23, 2015 Latest Print Print
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If President Barack Obama has his way, community colleges nationwide will be free to those Americans “willing to work for it.”

In a recent speech at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennesee, and again in his State of the Union address Jan. 20, the president said he seeks to make two years of college as “free and universal as high school.”

Some details of the initiative have yet to be nailed down but the plan would mirror an already established initiative in Tennessee, Obama said.

Students would be required to attend school at least half-time, maintain a GPA of 2.5 or better and “show steady progress,” the president said.

OCCC President Paul Sechrist said affordable education is at the very core of this college’s mission so he is watching the proposal with interest.

“We’re excited about the prospect of making community college free as mentioned by President Obama and we look forward to hearing the details of the plan,” he said.

“We are certainly in support of anything that helps us continue to accomplish this mission.

“Our signature OKC Go Scholarship Program … has opened the doors of college to many students. Expansion of a program like to all students would be a tremendous benefit.”

Political science Professor Randy Hopkins said the concept is nice but more complicated than it seems. He said there are numerous things to consider — for instance, where the funding would come from.

“The President stated the program could work like that in Tennessee, where two years of community college tuition for some is funded by excess lottery revenue,” Hopkins said,

“That means low-income residents, those that play the lottery, are paying tuition for middle-income students. … Seems like an unfair redistribution of wealth to me.”

Business and economic Professor Charles Myrick, a third-generation community college student, said he also has concerns about funding for such an initiative.

“If we’re taking it away from another group and then that’s going to end up hurting the economy, this impact could be little or none,” Myrick said,

However, he said, education has a lot of “positive externalities associated with it” which could benefit the entire economy.

Hopkins said a nationwide educational program would require state and federal governments to share the costs.

“Good luck with that in Oklahoma right now,” he said.

Hopkins said falling gasoline prices likely will negatively affect the state’s budget in the future which, in turn, affects education funding.

“So I doubt we’ll see any significant increase in funding from the state, unfortunately,” he said.

Sechrist said while the current state fiscal situation may make it difficult to bring about such a program, it’s not impossible.

“I certainly would hope that if the federal government picked up 75 percent of the cost of tuition that the state would find a way to fund its 25 percent obligation,” Sechrist said.

“If existing grant and scholarship programs were applied first, the balance may be financially doable for the state of Oklahoma.”

Sechrist said OCCC would prefer that the state pick up the entire cost, but said  even if the student had to pay 25 percent of the current cost, “that would make a real difference for students and would allow many more students to go to college.”

Hopkins said the focus should be on programs such as Pell Grants and others that are already in place to help students with tuition.

“Perhaps those programs could be modified more easily than getting proposed legislation through the Republican-controlled Congress at this point,” Hopkins said.

Physical therapy major Matthew Fay agrees with Hopkins but said he is still eager to see the full details of Obama’s proposal.

“I’d enjoy free community college but I’m not sure if it’s fair to everyone who isn’t going to go to community college but will end up paying for me … ,” Fay said. “I imagine that taxes will go up.”

On the flip side, Myrick said, in the long run, free college programs may actually drive taxes down or provide more benefit to taxpayers.

“A person is less likely to become a vagabond and we’re not going to have to pay for the basic services to keep them alive now that they can earn money, contribute to the system and take better care of others,” he said.

“Then the government’s able to tax them more because that person makes more money.”

That scenario could take place on a massive scale with a program like this, he said.

Myrick said those with some higher education also are less likely to become criminals, thus lowering crime rates and saving taxpayer dollars.

He said the social benefits of education are undeniable and OCCC would benefit from the added revenue.

Fay said he’ll remain cautious for now.

“Some things sound good at face value but what it ends up bringing about isn’t all that good,” he said.

Business accounting major Alex Burks said free community college would not only improve the educational experience but also could propel American business.

“I think this would definitely improve the standard of living across the board … ,” he said.

“It would help us keep up with inflation. And I think it will reduce the impending financial aid crisis.”

Vice President for Community Development Steve Bloomberg said the value of a community college initiative would be unparalleled.

“By 2018, there will be 46.8 million job openings, including 13.8 million newly created jobs and 33 million previously-vacated positions.

“Of these openings, it’s predicted 63 percent will require workers to have some college education,” he said.

“The proposal put forth by President Obama would place students at OCCC in a great position to compete for these higher-wage occupations.”

Myrick said it stands to improve the nation’s overall competitiveness in the world marketplace as well.

Sechrist said, regardless of the outcome, it’s a win-win situation.

“While it may be difficult given the current budget restraints at both the federal and state levels to fully fund the proposal, the proposal increased the focus on community colleges and the many benefits of attending a community college,” he said.

“The proposal also could spark debate that could lead to the expansion of the Federal Pell Grant Program or Oklahoma’s Promise — which might lead to a greater number of students going to college without the worry of paying tuition out-of-pocket.”

Obama said it’s up to Congress now to draft legislation that could implement this plan.

He has called upon a bipartisan coalition to do so.

To see Obama’s speech at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, visit http://youtu.be/TSMuY8NofJc.

To see his State of the Union address from Jan. 20, visit http://youtu.be/cse5cCGuHmE.

To contact Jorge Krzyzaniak, email seniorwriter@occc.edu

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