Proposal would open doors to free community college [CT Post]

January 21, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Connecticut Post

If attending community college was free, fewer of Vanessa Gaie’s friends at Central High School in Bridgeport would rule out higher education as an option, the high school senior said.

Danielle Santa Barbara, a single mother from Branford, would not have to work while taking classes at Housatonic Community College.

Tryone Bullock, a single father from Stamford, could divert the money he now spends on tuition at Norwalk Community College to things like textbooks, gasoline to get to class and day care expenses.

“It would mean a whole lot,” said Bullock, 41.

Hopes have been raised with President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community college free for students serious about getting ahead. It is an idea he plans to push in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, with at least two local community college presidents there to witness it.

Naugatuck Valley Community College President Daisy Cocco De Filippis will be the guest of U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., while Norwalk Community College President David Levinson will be the guest of U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn.

Himes is all for the concept, but like many others, he tempers his enthusiasm with a note of caution.

“I think it is going to be difficult,” Himes said during a stop in Bridgeport last week. “It is not a cheap program, and the new (Republican) majority is not enthusiastic about new programs. But, look, I think we can all agree that investing in young people’s education has a huge return. So I am hopeful.”

If nothing else, said Levinson, Obama’s proposal raises awareness and highlights the importance of community college.

“Really, the idea (is) of universal access to college being synonymous to universal access to high school,” Levinson said. “What is beautiful is that two years of college becomes the norm.”

The American College Plan, unveiled by Obama at a Jan. 9 visit to a Tennessee community college — where a state-run, tuition-free program operates — is designed to put more skilled people into the workforce and reduce the debt taken on in pursuit of higher education. It would cut in half the cost of a bachelor’s degree for those who participate.

“In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate’s degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience,” Obama told his audience in Tennessee. “We will not fill those jobs — or keep those jobs on our shores — without the training offered by community colleges.”

By 2020, it is estimated that 30 percent of job openings will require some college or an associate’s degree, and another 35 percent will require at least a bachelor’s degree.

There are some 1,100 two-year colleges in the country, enrolling 40 percent of all college students. The average annual tuition cost to attend a community college is $3,800.

To qualify for the proposed plan, students would have to maintain a 2.5 grade point average in college, attend full time and be enrolled in a program that fully transfers to a local public four-year college, or in a program that leads to employment in high-demand fields such as information technology, advanced manufacturing or allied health.

It is estimated the program could benefit as many as 9 million students and could cost as much as $60 billion, according to some estimates. Three-quarters of that would be footed by the federal government and one-quarter by participating states.

Connecticut backing

Board of Regents President Gregory Gray said if the plan makes it through Congress, he believes Connecticut will sign on to the plan.

“Gov. (Dannel P.) Malloy has already said he would take advantage of it,” Gray said.

Gray also said the state is prepared, with 12 community colleges, room to add more students and programs that meet the criteria of the proposed federal legislation.

One is the 3-year-old advanced manufacturing program operating out of Housatonic, Naugatuck and two other community colleges in the state.

At Housatonic, there are 38 students enrolled in an Advanced Manufacturing Certificate program, with room for 50, said Richard DuPont, director of the program. Next year the program is scheduled to expand, offering an associate’s degree and evening classes.

De Filippis, president of Naugatuck Valley Community College, said jobs are waiting for students who complete the Advanced Manufacturing program.

“It makes economic sense to do this,” De Filippis said, adding that Naugatuck, with a second campus in Danbury, has the capacity for more students.

Esty called the free-college plan a common-sense proposal that deserves to be debated and discussed in Congress.

“You hear heartbreaking stories at Naugatuck Valley about how many jobs students work and how even a voucher for a bus to school can make the difference in going or not,” Esty said. “Community colleges are something that hold strong appeal, and this is one way we can work together.”

Gaie, a college-bound senior from Bridgeport, said she has many friends for whom money is definitely an issue.

“Some people have persistence, but some people don’t even consider (college) because of the cost,” she said. “This would open the door for people.”

Jequan Norris, a college-bound senior at Harding High School, agreed.

“There are way too many students who can’t afford it, who deserve the chance,” Norris said.

Difference of opinion

“If we can afford to participate, Connecticut should get on that train,” said state Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Higher Education Committee. “It needs to get through a Republican Congress first, (but) I think it could be good.”

Others worry about how to pay for a free community college system, as well as the effect it would have on four-year colleges and even the motivation of students who might not work as hard for an education that comes free.

For his program, where students need to have strong skills to qualify, DuPont said there is little fear that having a “free ride” will lessen their commitment to doing well.

“The only downside I can see is how we, as taxpayers, fund it,” DuPont said. “How do we sustain it?”

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, asks the same question.

“I am a strong supporter of making college more affordable,” Boucher said. “Most people do not live off of a trust fund … but the issue is how to pay for it.”

Rather than simply throwing more state dollars at the effort, Boucher said, she believes there are hundreds of millions of dollars within the current state higher education system that can be redirected.

Gray, whose Board of Regents represents the state’s four-year regional universities as well as community colleges, expects the four-year schools will benefit, not be hurt by a free community college system because it would create a strong, reliable pipeline of upperclassmen transferring into them.

“I see it as a win-win,” he said.

How the plan would affect private colleges remains unclear. Judy Grieman, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, said her organization is still assessing the proposal. One concern she has is how the plan would affect financial aid funds that go to students attending four-year schools, she said.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said if nothing else, the plan sends a bold message that the cost of higher education should not be an obstacle for responsible students and parents across the state who are reaching the breaking point with student loan debt.

But can it get through Congress?

“The crisis of college affordability isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue,” Blumenthal said. “It’s an American imperative. The president’s proposal was modeled after a program in Tennessee, enacted by a Republican governor, and it’s one that I think both sides of the aisle can and should support. It not only can pass, it must pass with bipartisan support.”