Friday, June 01, 2018

Too Good To Be True? Time Will Tell on Tuition Plan

Our View, Editorial
Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 14, 2015

A program that would allow any American to attend two years of community college for free? It sounds too good to be true.

President Barack Obama on Friday announced just such a proposal.

“Community college should be free for those willing to work for it because, in America, a quality education should not be a privilege that is reserved for a few,” Obama said Friday.

Here’s how it would work:

•The federal government would cover 75 percent of tuition costs while participating states would pay the rest.

•Students would have to take classes at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 grade-point average and make progress toward a degree.

•Colleges would have to offer academic programs that fully transfer to four-year schools or job training programs with high graduation rates that lead to degrees and certificates sought by employers.

•States would have to maintain existing education investments and work to reduce the need for remedial classes and repeated courses.

As always, the devil’s in the details — in this case the financial details — and that’s where the saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” might come into play.

Of course this proposal isn’t “free.” The White House estimates that it would cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years and save students an average $3,800 in tuition per year.

The White House says details on how the president proposes to pay for the plan will be unveiled next month.

Without knowing all the details, we can spot a few pros and cons to this plan.

Pro: This program could help Iowa and the U.S. compete with a 21st century workforce. An analysis last year by Iowa Workforce Development shows a large gap in the number of middle-skill jobs — positions that require more than a high school degree but less than a four-year bachelor’s degree — and the number of workers qualified to fill those jobs. While middle-skill jobs make up 56 percent of jobs in the state, only 33 percent of Iowa workers possess the necessary skills.

Con: The program could divert students and scholarship money away from our four-year schools. The requirement that states maintain their effort for other sectors of higher education might induce some states to not participate.

Pro: This program could help not just low-income students, but middle class students who might not qualify for the Pell Grant but can’t quite afford to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket each year for tuition and other expenses.

Con: Taxpayers would be paying even for those who could pay for themselves. The money might be better spent on those who face the highest barriers, such as by increasing the the number of Pell Grants or changing the standard formula to make them available to more students.

Everyone deserves access to post-high school education and investing in it is a smart, long-term strategy to help improve Americans’ lives and our economy.

Whether this is the particular investment we want to make is yet to be seen. But we’re happy the conversation has begun and hope the proposal gets a fair hearing.

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