Paul Wellman

Free Community College?

S.B. Reactions to President’s Bold Proposal

Generating considerable buzz in the higher-education world, President Barack Obama proposed a program last week that would allow every American to attend two years of community college at no cost. California, where 2.1 million students attend 112 community colleges, is already a relatively hefty subsidizer of higher education as it doles out more than $803 million to community colleges in fee waivers to low-income students. About 40 percent of Santa Barbara City College students receive some type of state or federal grant or fee waiver. Full-time, in-state residents pay about $1,378 in annual enrollment fees, excluding room and board. According to the White House, states that already invest significantly would be able to make smaller contributions, and states would have flexibility in using some resources.

Obama’s proposed program — dubbed America’s College Promise and based on a state program in Tennessee — would require students to maintain a 2.5 GPA, attend school at least half-time, and complete either half of a bachelor’s degree or a two-year associate’s degree. The program would be free for all students regardless of socioeconomic status. The program would be paid 75 percent by the federal government, and states that chose to participate would chip in the remaining funds. Exactly where the money would come from remains unclear, a point that critics have stressed.

Supporters such as SBCC President Lori Gaskin called Obama’s recognition of the importance of community colleges “inspiring” and “affirming,” though she noted the plan still has to evolve. She added, “What’s most notable is that it does bring us back to our roots as a California community college because we began as a free system.” Also applauding the plan, Congressmember Lois Capps said in a statement that expanding access to higher education is important for students and families and is a critical long-term investment in the local economy.

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