Q&A: Professors talk about President Obama’s free community college

By Stephanie Dawber

News Editor

Photo courtesy of Brian Frederick.
Frederick is in support of free community college, but does not think it will pass in Congress. Photo courtesy of Brian Frederick.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Nelson.
Nelson believes free community college will help big businesses like Walmart. Photo courtesy of Stephen Nelson.


In his State of the Union address, President Obama introduced “America’s College Promise Proposal.” In response to the President’s proposal, two BSU professors agreed to sit down and discuss the issues at hand. Both Dr. Brian Frederick, Associate Professor and Chair Department of Political Science, and Dr. Stephen Nelson, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Bridgewater State University and a Senior Scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown University, share their input.


Q:. Recently, President Obama argued that his plan would strengthen the U.S. workforce and make it more globally competitive. His plan also would enable higher education to be more accessible “to responsible students who are willing to work for it.”​ Do you agree or disagree with the President’s statement? Why?

Frederick: I generally agree with the President’s statement. Federal subsidies for Community College will help many students to attend college without acquiring massive amounts of debt to do so.

Nelson: In general, yes. I mean I think the reality, whether we like it or not, is that the high school degree of 35 years ago is the college degree of today. The graduate degree today is what an undergraduate degree meant 25-35 years ago. Obama is right in advancing the populus. It is not only important internally for the country, but then if you put a “global competitive marketplace” [into context] it is unavoidable. We should want a better educated populace and citizenry for a whole bunch of reasons not just for education and employment.


Q: How would the proposal affect 4 year colleges like Bridgewater State University?​

Frederick: I think the impact will be negligible. Those students interested in four year programs aren’t likely to attend community college instead of 4 year institutions like BSU.

Nelson: I think it would actually affect them very positively. You can argue that those folks may transfer, but BSU already has an automatic transfer program now with community colleges in Mass. Now you could argue, they paid two year tuition somewhere else…but we increase enrollment and we get a more qualified student coming in as a junior. If that student was coming in as a freshmen we might not have accepted them.


Q: According to a White House rep, the estimated price tag of the President’s plan would be “roughly $60 billion over 10 years” with three quarters of the program financed by the federal government. If all states decide to participate, it would include about 9 million students. However, do you believe that it would be better to spend $60 billion to expand the existing federal Pell Grant program?

Frederick: I don’t believe the money would be better spent on the Pell grant program. Those grants can be used at 4 year institutions both Private and Public where tuition costs continue to explode. Subsidizing community college tuition is a much more affordable option.

Nelson: The bottom line is how do you get more students with as much reasonable support as possible into our higher ed system. Pell Grants have clearly made a difference for the past 35 years, both to open the door for people who normally couldn’t afford it and less debt. I’d probably say ‘let’s have a little bit of both.’


Q: In your opinion, who will pay for the “free” community college? Who will it affect the most?​

Frederick: Federal income tax revenues will finance most of the program. Since the Federal tax system is much more progressive than most state tax systems, wealthy Americans will end up supporting the bulk of the cost.

Nelson: It clearly affects lower income people enormously, because it’s basically saying to someone who can’t even afford community college or doesn’t think that they can afford community college, ‘here is a way to do it.’ My economic argument is only what I’ve heard loads of people say, and that is that the very wealthy actually could be helped by more people having better employment at higher wages, [in turn] those people would be injecting more money into the economy. The Walmarts in the world are helped when people have more money in their pockets.


Q: Do you believe the proposal will go into effect? Is President Obama’s proposal realistic?

Frederick: No. This plan has very little chance of passing in the current session of Congress. It will only pass if there is a big increase in members of Congress who want to spend more money on higher education. That outcome isn’t likely over the next few election cycles.

Nelson: This is where it becomes unrealistic- he’s [Obama] essentially saying that [the proposal] would be paid for by increased by taxes by highest income earners. There’s no way that’s going to happen.


Q: What do you believe are the advantages of President Obama’s community college proposal?

Frederick: One of the biggest advantages is that it will help give non-traditional students who want to improve their skills and knowledge base a better chance to do so. This opportunity should create a better educated workforce.

Nelson: You could argue that the very wealthy could be helped by having more people in the workforce, at better levels, with more money to spend once they get into the workforce. Nobody wants to make that sophisticated economic argument. It’s a very American idea.


Q: What do you believe are the disadvantages of President Obama’s community college proposal?​

Frederick: The disadvantage is that it does require state participation. As we have seen with attempts to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, some states are not willing to participate in these types of initiatives, based on ideological opposition to expanding government.

Nelson: Good idea that it is, the way its going to be funded, I just don’t see it.



Stephanie Dawber is the News Editor of The Comment. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieDawber.


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