In the first 2017 installment of his column, Zack Johnson tackles the issue of tuition-free college
Last year, when the state legislature passed the Oregon Promise, solidifying free community college for all graduating high school students, the initiative was touted as a revolutionary measure supporting young adults in continuing their secondary educational pursuits. The minimum requirements of the Oregon Promise — that students maintain a 2.5 GPA, apply for the FAFSA, hold Oregon residency for one year and graduate from high school or a comparable GED program within one year of application — allows students to apply for the program and attend most Oregon community colleges for a flat rate of $50 per term.
Upon completion of two years at a community college, students are then encouraged to apply to Portland State University to continue their schooling and eventually receive their bachelor’s degree. Nearly 12,000 students applied for the program in 2016, and officials from the Oregon Department of Education predicted a nearly 25 percent increase in recent high school graduates enrolling in community college in just one year.
The Oregon Promise — modeled after the pioneering Tennessee Promise Program — rests predominantly upon other federal and state financial aid programs to function. Federal grants already cover nearly the entirety of community college tuition costs for a vast majority of Oregon college students and will continue to provide aid in addition to the implementation of the Oregon Promise program.
Furthermore, undocumented high school graduates are now eligible to participate in the program and early predictions cite nearly 70 undocumented students participating in the program. Pulling only $10 million from Oregon’s nearly $9 billion yearly budget, the Oregon Promise program provides a clear image of the feasibility of expanding community college to all interested students.
The promotion of “free college” became a mainstream political ideology during Bernie Sanders’ presidential run last year. However, Sanders’ plan ignored almost entirely the expansion of programs like that of the Oregon Promise. Instead, it focused upon the promotion of “tuition-free college” within the context of public, four-year universities. The very concept of Sanders’ proposal was a particularly vague one, primarily due to the variety of avenues one could approach in achieving such a concept. For the American public, the term “free college” was easily misconstrued.
Sanders’ mostly feasible plan for cutting college tuition costs quickly metastasized into a philosophy that even his own campaign could not control. In the end, his promotion of “free college” ultimately detracted from his image as a politician, especially for the large sector of Americans who never attended college or felt otherwise indifferent to the idea of our generation being able to afford college. His equitable plan was swiftly and negatively transformed into a pseudo-socialist “hand-out” plan by the media for us darned millennials, subsequently fading into obscurity as Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination. And yet, perhaps his plan was questionable all along.
The very blunt point of the matter is that not every American citizen can succeed within the collegiate sphere, nor does every American student want to attend a four-year university. The very novel, egalitarian philosophy of “free college” implies that every student who wishes to participate in college will complete four additional years of schooling beyond that of the twelve already completed at the conclusion of high school. Thrusting students directly into the four-year college environment — and not offering programs similar to that of the Oregon Promise — only addresses certain issues within the overall sphere of affording collegiate education. For some, particularly those on the fence of whether or not to attend a four-year university — or any college at all — offering them the ability to experience college first through a free community college program may foster the experience necessary to discern whether or not the four-year college environment is something they are interested in pursuing further.
While the cost of college tuition is certainly ridiculous and has grown to sickeningly exorbitant levels, simply making it “free” for all students does not entirely solve the problem. Retention and graduation rates must be maintained amidst a new influx of students. Before we can make four-year universities “tuition-free,” we ought to explore the possibilities of expanding free community college—as well as trade schooling and vocational schooling—programs throughout the nation. By expanding programs such as the Oregon Promise and Tennessee Promise nationwide, we can economically and efficiently cater to thousands of additional students wanting to pursue secondary collegiate education, allowing any student who wishes to pursue college a realistic avenue toward doing so.