DATE OF RELEASE: THURSDAY, JANUARY 15TH, 2015
Public Agenda praises President Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college as an important step toward reaffirming the role and purpose of higher education in our democracy. The organization warns, however, that cost is just one of the many factors the country must address to make college completion a reality for our nation’s students.
“While many details remain to be seen, the announcement has already begun to spur a critical dialogue about the importance of higher education in our country and the role that community colleges play in providing a better future for millions of Americans,” said Will Friedman, president of Public Agenda.
“Community college student success is among the greatest civil rights issues of our time,” said Alison Kadlec, Public Agenda’s director of higher education and workforce programs. “While there are open questions about funding and implementation, the gesture behind the proposal is profoundly significant.”
“Despite their critical importance as engines of social and economic mobility, community colleges have remained under-appreciated and under-supported for far too long,” Kadlec continued. “By shining the national spotlight on community colleges, the administration is encouraging serious reflection on how to help these institutions more successfully meet the needs of their diverse student populations.”
Public Agenda also urges policymakers to dig deeper to examine and address other barriers to student success. “Increasing access, which this proposal is certainly intended to do, is part of the equation, but it’s only the beginning,” Kadlec said. “It’s critical to focus also on how the proposal would impact completion of certificates and degrees, transfer to four-year colleges and advancement in the labor market. Without a commitment to student success, the focus on access will ring hollow.”
Public Agenda encourages the Obama administration to carefully examine how the proposal would affect and interact with the following factors:
- Balancing School and Work. In a Public Agenda survey, 71 percent of students who failed to complete college said they dropped out because they “needed to go to work and make money.” Full-time students are more likely to complete college than part-time students. If the community college proposal were to provide full tuition above and beyond what Pell Grants would contribute, as an administration official has indicated would be the case, then it may allow students to work fewer hours and increase their chances for completing.
- Addressing Institutional-Level Barriers. The proposal indicates that institutions would need to adopt policies that would help increase student completion. Many college policies and practices currently hinder student success, and encouraging reform at the institutional level could help more students succeed. However, top-down mandates alone do not create the conditions for meaningful reform. It’s critical that states support community colleges as the colleges pursue changes that will better support students.
- Paying Attention to Completion As Well As to Access. The President’s proposal indicates that states would need to pursue performance-based funding in order to be eligible for federal funds. In other words, states would receive funding based on the number of students who complete their programs rather than the number of students enrolled. The effectiveness of performance-based funding remains unclear and requires ongoing research, but the focus on success as well as access is critically important.
About Public Agenda
Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on higher education affordability, achievement gaps, community college completion, use of technology and innovation, and other higher education issues. Find Public Agenda online at PublicAgenda.org.