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"Free" Community College: Would It, Could It, Should It Work in Washington?

PHOTO: As many as nine million Americans could attend community college free for two years if a proposal made by President Obama comes to pass. The plan would have the federal government covering 75 percent of the cost, and states paying 25 percent. Photo credit: Microsoft Images.
PHOTO: As many as nine million Americans could attend community college free for two years if a proposal made by President Obama comes to pass. The plan would have the federal government covering 75 percent of the cost, and states paying 25 percent. Photo credit: Microsoft Images.
January 13, 2015

SHORELINE, Wash. - It's still just an idea, but President Obama's mention of a plan to allow students to attend community college free for two years, providing they keep their grades up, is getting thumbs up from some Washington educators.

Tuition at the state's community and technical colleges has risen 38 percent in the last six years. The price tag for Obama's national proposal is $60 billion over a ten-year period, and states would be required to fund one-fourth of the program.

Karen Strickland, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Washington, says it might not be a matter of raising new funds, but redirecting financial aid dollars.

"There is a lot of money that goes into financial aid, and then, maintaining the financial aid system," says Strickland. "So I have no doubt that we have enough money that we can fund this if we want to."

She says another benefit of the plan would be a major reduction in student debt.

But the Obama plan is already being criticized for allowing some students to go to school free, even if they don't need financial assistance. Some members of Congress think it could work better in states and not as a federal program.

History professor Amy Kinsel, who serves as president of the Shoreline Community College Federation of Teachers Local 1950, says funding for community and technical colleges in Washington is partly based on how many graduates the schools turn out. When individuals drop out, it can affect the school's future - as well as students.

"It's really good to focus on community colleges," says Kinsel. "That's where the students aren't completing at the rate that we'd like to see. And those are the students who we can really make a difference with. But if they can't afford to stay in school, it's not going to happen."

Washington has state-funded Need Grants, but in the last academic year, 32,000 students who qualified didn't receive them because the Legislature didn't fully fund the program.

Beyond students' needs, Strickland thinks Congress and states should focus on societal benefits if more people are able to get ahead.

"We need people to have more training than high school in order to compete in a high-functioning economy, and in order for people to have a good quality of life and raise families," says Strickland. "So, if that's what we need, then in my mind, it's an invaluable investment to expand the system that we have."

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA