I’ve been seeing a lot of excitement about Obama’s announcement last night of his proposal to make community college free for as many students as possible. And yes, in many ways, the excitement is warranted. Higher education is a great thing, and absolutely should be made more accessible to as many people who are interested in it as it can be. So on that level, I entirely approve of his proposals.
Unfortunately, I’m highly skeptical that it is likely to do much good for people here in Washington State.
The part of Obama’s plan that stands out to me is the requirement for states to share the burden of picking up the tuition costs for students (emphasis in the following quotes is mine):
This proposal will require everyone to do their part: community colleges must strengthen their programs and increase the number of students who graduate, states must invest more in higher education and training, and students must take responsibility for their education, earn good grades, and stay on track to graduate.
Ensuring Shared Responsibility with States: Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. States that choose to participate will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate community college tuition for eligible students. States that already invest more and charge students less can make smaller contributions, though all participating states will be required to put up some matching funds. States must also commit to continue existing investments in higher education; coordinate high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions to reduce the need for remediation and repeated courses; and allocate a significant portion of funding based on performance, not enrollment alone. States will have flexibility to use some resources to expand quality community college offerings, improve affordability at four-year public universities, and improve college readiness, through outreach and early intervention.
It’s perfectly reasonable, really. But here in Washington, higher education is not a current funding priority, and is constantly facing more cuts:
Double-digit tuition increases. Class cuts that would make it harder to finish a degree in four years. Enrollment cutbacks that would make it more difficult to get admitted to a state university.
Washington’s public college and university presidents, warning that a hypothetical 15 percent cut to higher education would be devastating to public colleges and universities, are in a standoff with the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) over fiscal planning for the next two years.
About two-thirds of the state’s budget is protected by constitutional and federal requirements — categories such as K-12 education, pensions and mandatory Medicaid. Budget cuts must come from the remaining one-third of the budget, which includes higher education, state prisons and social services. And some of those categories — prisons, for example — are very difficult to trim.
Since the beginning of the recession in 2008, one of the hardest-hit segments of the state budget has been higher education. It’s the principal reason why state college tuition has increased so fast.
In this financial climate, I’m extremely skeptical that Washington will be participating in this program, should it move forward. We simply don’t have the money, and won’t until the voters realize that we actually need to be willing to pay for all these services that we think we should have.
I think Obama’s general idea is a good one, and I support it and the thinking behind it. I just wish I could be more optimistic that students in Washington would actually have a chance to take advantage of it.