ALEXANDRIA,Va. – Community colleges may have to take on a huge influx of new students if President Barack Obama’s proposal for free community college is approved.
Every year,about 6,000 would-be students at Northern Virginia Community College’s 10 campuses and centers withdraw from classes because they are unable to pay,George Gabriel,vice president of institutional effectiveness and student success initiatives,said.
Students who can’t afford a community college education may end up at low-paying jobs or take semesters off to save up for their tuition.
Enas M. Al-Hadidi,19,a second-year student who lives in Alexandria but is originally from Jordan,is studying social science at NOVA’s Alexandria campus. She said a friend alternates between working full time and taking classes. This semester,the friend is working.
Katherine Aguilar,20,of Alexandria,a fellow second-year student originally from Bolivia studying criminal psychology,said it can be difficult for students to work full time and take classes,so they choose to take time off.
“I have a friend that isn’t going this semester because they’re not receiving any financial aid because she’s working,” Aguilar said. “If she had time – she doesn’t have the money,so if it was for free,she would be right on.”
Tuition and fees at NOVA are $161.75 per credit hour. A student taking 15 hours would pay just over $2,400 in tuition and fees. At the University of Virginia,the state’s flagship four-year campus,tuition and fees for full-time,in-state students are just over $13,200. That doesn’t include living expenses.
Tuition and fees have risen more than 30 percent at Virginia’s community colleges over five years and by more than 20 percent at four-year schools,according to the College Board. Over the last seven years,NOVA’s enrollment has risen 21.7 percent,from 64,400 students to 78,400.
Gabriel said NOVA has adjusted to the increased enrollment and is prepared for another potential increase should the proposal create a higher demand.
The president’s proposal,which would provide 75 percent of the funding,with the other 25 percent provided by states,would award free tuition at public community and technical colleges to qualifying students. According to a White House official,money for the program will flow through state governments.
During his trip to Knoxville,Tenn.,Jan. 9,Obama said the program would essentially offer skills training or half a bachelor’s degree for free,but students,schools and states would have to work together to meet requirements.
“This isn’t a blank check. It’s not a free lunch,” Obama said. “But for those willing to do the work,and for states and local communities that want to be a part of this,it can be a game-changer.”
To be eligible,students would have to attend a community college at least half-time,make steady progress toward a degree and maintain a 2.5 GPA. Community colleges would have to provide academic programs that either transfer to public,four-year colleges and universities or occupational training programs with high graduation rates.
However,details of the proposal haven’t been released.
Aguilar said she is concerned about the funding for the proposal and wondered if her tax money would fund it.
Gabriel said many students at NOVA already receive federal aid,so the new proposal would fill the rest of the gap. He said the required 2.5 GPA will keep students responsible for their education.
“It doesn’t look like taxpayers’ funds are going to be just thrown on an area that’s not going to bring a return on investment,” he said.
Second-year pre-med student Sabreen H.T. Shalabi,21,who grew up in Jerusalem and lives in Alexandria,said she thought the free tuition would encourage students to keep their grades up and move on to a four-year school.
“Some students don’t have that good of a GPA,so they will not consider transferring,” Shalabi said. “If they have that money,they will definitely,definitely,work harder to get better grades.”
The idea of supporting higher education for students is appealing to Barmak Nassirian,director of federal policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. But he said it is unclear how the program would fit in with existing aid programs and a complex community college and university system.
He said the requirement that credits transfer to four-year schools will be an obstacle. Universities are often hesitant to accept transfer credits because of perceived differences in rigor between colleges and universities. Nassirian said discrepancies can result from smaller budgets at community colleges. NOVA,like other community colleges,has agreements with some universities to make the process easier.
David S. Baime,senior vice president for government relations and research for the American Association of Community Colleges,said he believes an incentive that would push two-and four-year schools to work together is a positive step. It is a university’s prerogative to decide whether to accept credits,but students whose credits don’t transfer may have to take the same class twice.
“People at four-year institutions or the accepting institution actually have in my opinion – and our opinion –a legitimate reason and right to only accept credits that they think are up to the quality of their institution,” Baime said.
The issue of transferring credits would be resolved among colleges and universities to meet the requirements of the program with help,as needed,from the states,according to the White House official.
Baime cited relationships between community colleges and universities in Virginia,Florida,Wyoming and the District of Columbia as examples of how schools can work together.
Al-Hadidi and Shalabi both take part NOVA’s guaranteed admission program,which will allow them to transfer credits to four-year schools,provided they maintain the GPA outlined in the guaranteed admission agreement for the university they apply to. Gabriel said the program was created about five years ago because students transferring to four-year schools often ended up with credits that would not transfer.
The plan doesn’t outline a relationship between the free tuition program and existing student aid such as federal loans and work study,but the White House official said the intention is to build on existing investments in education rather than replace them. Nassirian and Baime said they hope federal financial aid programs will remain available for students in addition to the free tuition.
Kevin E. Baisden,28,from Bailey’s Crossroads,Va.,is a second year business administration student at NOVA. He said he hopes the proposal would allow for further education in poverty-stricken and low-income areas. Baisden had to save up for school and said his education would not be possible without the help of a Pell Grant.
“Education will not be a privilege,but rather a responsibility for those people who want to pursue education rather than be marginalized because of financial instability or other economic components,” Baidsen said.
Though details on the proposal remain light,the White House official said a more robust plan will come out with the president’s budget,likely Feb. 2.
Reach reporter Allison Kite at [email protected] or 202-408-1491. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.