Obama college plan prompts questions

Derek Draplin
The Detroit News

President Barack Obama’s proposition to make community college free for anyone “willing to work for it” — a program he is expected to tout during Tuesday’s State of the Union address — gets mixed reactions from local students, administrators and policy makers.

Students interviewed at Oakland Community College’s Auburn Hills campus liked the idea of getting help with expenses, though they realize it may cost taxpayers more. “Anything free, especially when it comes to college, is a good thing,” said Joseph Juncvic, 18, a freshman.

But Juncvic, who’s majoring in global studies and is also student government treasurer, questioned Obama’s intentions while describing the proposal as a “double-edged sword.”

“What are the effects it’ll have on school quality? Will we be spending more on education?” he asked. “Maybe it’s for his legacy — he wants to be remembered for something.”

Shelby Klein, 20, a sophomore from Alognac studying auto body repair, said the program would especially help families with multiple kids to put through college.

“I could see taxes skyrocketing — right now I’m on financial aid,” she said, but added it would definitely “help me and my parents out. … I’m the oldest and I have three brothers behind me.”

The White House says the program, which could involve about 9 million participants, will cost $60 billion in federal spending over 10 years and another $20 billion from states that opt in. Under the plan, 75 percent of the program’s funding will come from federal dollars while states cover the remaining 25 percent.

Called America’s College Promise, the program is modeled after the Tennessee Promise, which has been highly successful in attracting more applicants and recent high school graduates.

Students would qualify by attending college at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average while working toward a degree or certificate.

Val Marcano, 18, of Rochester Hills, who had just bought books from OCC’s bookstore, said she spent more than $300 on books and noted that free tuition would allow her to focus more on school.

“It’d be awesome, I wouldn’t have to work as much,” said Marcano, who works as a resident assistant at a senior living center. “The downside is it’s a lot of money but would help a lot of people who really need it.”

Oakland Community College Chancellor Timothy R. Meyer also had praise for the program.

“President Barack Obama’s announcement for a plan for free tuition highlights the important role of community colleges in higher education,” he said. “The president is on the right track connecting higher education to economic development and prosperity – the two are closely tied.”

There are 28 public community colleges in Michigan. Of the 449,084 students enrolled, 33.91 percent go to school full time, with the average cost per-credit for in-district students totaling about $94, according to the Michigan Community College Association. To offset these costs, 58 percent of students in Michigan receive some form of financial aid.

Nationally, 40 percent of community college students are full time, while 58 percent of students receive financial aid out of 72 percent that applied, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Not everyone thinks the program is a good idea.

“Poorer kids are already getting free tuition so this money is going to kids that are relatively affluent,” said Dr. Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, an organization in Washington, D.C., that researches higher education policy.

“Essentially, to pay for this we either have to raise taxes or borrow the money — I think this is financially irresponsible.”