Debt / Education

America’s College Promise: One of Aspiration or Attainment

As tuition costs in universities across the United States continue to swell, students look to community colleges that offer cheaper tuition options than four-year universities. Now, the tuition cost of community college may get even cheaper. While addressing Pellissippi State Community College outside of Knoxville, Tennessee on January 9, President Obama proposed to make higher education more accessible. In his proposal named “America’s College Promise,” Obama presented a plan to provide qualified students with free tuition for two years of community college. A similar proposal by Tennessee Governor Haslam was signed into law last summer.

Named the Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act of 2014, along with financial scholarship, it institutes a mentorship and community service component to encourage students to continue their education, an element absent in Obama’s proposal. Estimating Obama’s proposal to transfer costs of $60 billion to the government over a ten-year period, each qualified student will receive around $3,800 per academic year. Aside from the fact that Haslam’s mentorship plan may prevent potential drop-outs or academic fails, it is unclear whether Obama’s community college cost cut will substantially enable more students to become college graduates.

Community colleges only offer an associate degree, or two-year degree. To become a college graduate, students must use community college as a pathway to a four-year institution. However, the course to a four-year institution is often a bumpy one. Less than twenty percent of community college students go on to a four-year institution. Only five percent of students complete an associate degree in two years. The extra time spent on receiving an associate degree creates a new financial burden that could be spent on receiving a bachelor’s degree.

Many times, students attending community college must complete remedial courses before beginning classes accredited to an associate degree. Since these courses do not count toward a degree, remedial courses lengthen the amount of time required to complete a two-year degree, which in turn increases the expense of the degree. Currently, education policy experts have even started to analyze an associate’s degree as a three-year degree.

Usually, a student is required to take a remedial course after scoring poorly on a college-given standardized test, an area where Haslam’s mentorship idea would be of substantial assistance. Colleges design remedial courses to prepare students for college. However, a high school degree implies that students have mastered basic skills in preparation to pursue a higher education. Obviously, there is a disconnect between K-12 education standards and entry-level standards in higher education.

With the annual cost of remedial courses in community colleges estimated around $4 billion, this cost makes up two-thirds of the proposed yearly budget under Obama’s proposal. Therefore, this data calls into question whether Obama’s “America’s College Promise” focuses on the right target population to increase college attainment. President Obama believes this proposal will help non-traditional students enter back into the educational realm, which currently contributes to half the students attending college.

“It’s not just for kids, we also have to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages, better benefits,” stated President Obama in his proposal.

However, this promise of college does not adequately promote college attainment for high school seniors. Only twenty-three percent of high school graduates from the class of 2004 attribute not being able to afford college as the factor in not pursuing a higher education. However, non-degree seeking graduates consistently performed worse academically with lower GPA’s, lighter course load and lower scores on standardized testing. The focus should be improving K-12 academics.

By matching a high school student with a mentor during and beyond the college application process, the Tennessee Promise Scholarship’s mentorship program provides significant guidance in continuing higher education rather than just an open door through financial support. Financially, a mentorship component could also cut costs on the degree by preparing community college students for passing standardized remedial course testing.

The Tennessee Promise Scholarship goes into affect for the class of 2015.

Obama’s College Promise gives students, especially disadvantaged students, a chance to pursue a higher education. However, without proper college preparation and guidance, the financial support alone will not considerably raise the aggregate of college graduates. Obama’s College Promise should focus on attainment rather than aspiration of the college degree dream.