America’s College Promise Proposal Creates Many Questions

January 9, 2015
Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

Update: February 5, 2015

As early as January 12, new details began to emerge about how the America’s College Promise program would work. Combining information from meetings with White House officials and additional press statements, many answers (appearing below in blue next to the original questions) are now available about the program.

The answers below do shed much needed light on the America’s College Promise program. In particular, students participating in the program will be able to “stack” their Pell Grant on top of the free tuition. Additionally, because the funding will be administered as a state block grant, states will be charged with ensuring programs meet qualifications, such as transfer pathways to ensure that credits are accepted at (likely public) four-year institutions. 

For further discussion on the possible unintended consequences to equity for this college proposal, see the blog post: Free Community College: Path to Equity or Creating a Two-Tiered System?  

Original Post: January 9, 2015

Free community college sets a clear expectation for all students that they are expected to continue their education or training beyond high school. In President Obama’s proposal today, outlined on the White House Blog with video, he takes his national priority of increasing college completion a step further by setting this expectation. In summary, the President proposes free community college tuition for all students willing “to work for it” (GPA minimum 2.5) with the federal government assuming 75% of the cost and a state match of 25%. 

“The President's proposal holds great promise for our country, particularly if it provides new, additional federal and state funding for our most needy students,” says Kim Cook, Executive Director of the National College Access Network. “We look forward to working together to craft an equitable approach that meets the President's goal of providing the first half of bachelor’s degree or technical training to all students through the creation of a new partnership with states.”

As we wait for more details to become available, however, the initial proposal raises many questions about whether or not this is the most effective and equitable way to address the college access and success needs of our country.

  • Does this program best serve low-income students?
    • How is this different from Pell Grants? According to the White House blog post, this program is based on the average community college tuition cost of $3800 a year. For those who qualify for a Pell Grant, community college tuition is already free. Where many students need additional support is paying for fees, books, and living expenses.
      • Answer: America’s College Promise is a federal grant to states to provide free tuition for qualifying programs and qualifying students. With this structure, students can receive their Pell Grant IN ADDITION TO participating in the free tuition program, allowing them to use the entirety of their Pell Grant dollars for other cost of attendance expenses books or rent. 
    • Is there a need component? Does this shift existing funds away from needy students and toward those who could afford to pay?
      • Answer: Students (or their families) must earn less than $200,000 annually in order to qualify for the free tuition. This means the vast majority of students will qualify for the program. 
    • How will this program be connected to need-based financial aid? Does the missing the 2.5 GPA requirement affect Satisfactory Academic Progress for need-based financial aid (which is usually set at 2.0).
      • Answer: The GPA requirement is for participation in the free tuition program, but is not related to SAP for Title IV aid such as Pell Grants. A student with a 2.3 GPA would not receive free tuition, but would maintain his/her federal student aid.
  • How will this program be funded?
    • How will federal government pay for its part of this program? Will other aid programs, specifically need-based aid programs, lose funding?
      • Answer: Currently, the program is part of the overall budget and is projected to cost $60 billion over 10 years, but a specific mechanism for paying for the program has not been announced.
    • Does the proposal seek state cost-sharing (or a match) for Pell Grants?
      • Answer: There is a state cost-sharing element to this program, but it is not related to any current federal student aid program. States that participate will receive three-quarters of the average cost of community college tuition for qualifying programs from the federal government and must put the additional one-quarter themselves. For states with high tuition, they will likely to need to pay more than 25% whereas states with lower tuition will pay less.
    • How many states will participate? Given the state divestment in higher education, do states have the capacity to participate?
      • Answer: This will be determined if Congress creates the program.
    • Will Congress appropriate any additional needed funds for the federal portion of the program?
      • Answer: This will be determined based on how Congress funds the program.
  • How will federal government ensure students are being well-served?
    • Should students who qualify to attend four-year institutions be steered to community colleges to save money, especially considering those who can afford to pay will likely still take the four-year path?
      • Answer: According to research used by White House officials, the promise of free tuition is more likely to motivate students on the fence about attending college at all than it is to discourage four-year attendance among those considering it.
    • Will the federal government review the information it collects on colleges? Current community college graduation rates are low and likely inaccurate because of the way the federal government collects graduation data. With this sort of investment, will the federal government improve its ability to know if students are succeeding?
      • Answer: The government already has plans to improve data collection that should address some of these issues. In order for programs to qualify, they will need to have established credit transfer pathways and records of success.

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