Education Expert on Obama’s Free Tuition Proposal

A female African-American college student. (iStock Photo)
Erik Hines, assistant professor of educational psychology.
Erik Hines, assistant professor of educational psychology.

President Barack Obama Friday proposed offering free community college tuition for two years to qualified high school students who could then apply the credits toward a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university and use the time to enhance their skills to support the need for a highly trained workforce.

Under the plan, 75 percent of the tuition costs would be absorbed by the federal government and individual states would be responsible for the remaining funds. In order to be eligible for the program, called America’s College Promise, students would need to maintain a minimum 2.5 GPA and attend at least half their classes. The proposed program still needs Congressional approval and funding. But if approved, as many as 9 million students could benefit, each saving an average $3,800 a year in tuition, according to White House estimates.

UConn Today reached out to Erik Hines, assistant professor of educational psychology in the Neag School of Education, a specialist in school counseling and college and career readiness, to see what he had to say about the proposal.

Q:  Which high school students may be best served by this program and how will it assist them in improving their education and preparing for a career?

A:  Ultimately, America’s College Promise could benefit all students who want an opportunity to improve their career and life opportunities through education beyond a high school diploma. In particular, America’s College Promise will benefit students who may not have the financial resources to attend a four-year school right after high school. This proposal would also be beneficial to first-generation college students and historically underserved students who may feel that “going away” to a four-year college is not the best immediate option after high school, as they may play a significant role in helping their family – from taking care of siblings or parents to contributing to household finances. In addition, some students do not want to place a financial burden on themselves or their families to acquire a post-secondary education; therefore, America’s College Promise will be helpful to students who come from low-income and working-class families who desire an education but need it to be affordable.

Q:  President Obama’s initiative is believed to be patterned after a popular program in Tennessee called the Tennessee Promise, where almost 90 percent of the state’s recent high school graduates have applied for a community college scholarship that is paid for using state lottery revenues. Do you think a proposal like this will work at the national level?

A:  The America’s College Promise proposal could work at the national level. It is a step in the right direction for greater initiatives to come, as a result of making a post-secondary education accessible to students who may find it unattainable because of financial hardship or lack of resources. The national conversation is moving toward helping all students become college- and career-ready, as well as developing a workforce that is highly educated and highly talented to spur innovative and creative ideas as investments for the prosperity of the United States.

Q:  Opponents of the plan say it would be more useful nationally if the federal government reduced some of the complex paperwork required for Pell Grants and if Congress increased college aid funding. What do you think of those other options?

A:  The options of increasing funding for college aid and reducing paperwork for Pell Grants are good alternatives should the America’s College proposal not get Congressional approval. However, the America’s College Promise initiative is optimal, because students would not need to be concerned about the rising costs of tuition. The possibility of tuition increases can deter college enrollment and persistence.

Q:  Colleges and universities across the country are expanding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) programs in order to prepare a highly trained workforce for today’s high-tech industries and businesses. Will this program help that effort?

A:  The initiative will help prepare students for STEM jobs that require a training certificate or an associate’s degree. Classes at community colleges tend to be smaller and, for some students, more conducive to getting the preparation in STEM courses to help them achieve once they get to a four-year university. The smaller setting may give students a chance to talk and work with instructors more than in a foundational STEM course at a four-year school, where a class size may be too big to get one-on-one assistance from instructors. In addition, industry is also taking an interest in hiring community college graduates for STEM fields. Companies such as Connecticut Light & Power have started partnering with local community colleges toward that end.

Q:  Some students entering two-year colleges have struggled with the transition from high school and have needed remedial education to advance their basic skills. The Tennessee program assigns “mentors” to help these students achieve. Others have suggested that these colleges change their teaching approach by offering more online instruction and using class time for personalized support. How important are these extra support services in achieving success?

A:  Support services are critical to the success of students. Research has shown that. Access to tutoring, social support, and an environment that is achievement-oriented can positively impact a student’s ability to succeed. Further, a pipeline between high school and community college educators is important to ensure students will successfully make the transition. Community colleges can offer tours to local high school students to get them acclimated and comfortable with navigating the institution, to give them a head start on becoming successful as a college student. College tours can help students identify where student services are located, what programs are offered, and how to access financial and social resources, as well as assist them in identifying a major or program suitable to their interests and talents.

Q:  Some advocates have expressed concern that the President’s proposal will subsidize middle- and upper-income students and not extend out to the students who need it most.

A:  I understand advocates wanting to ensure that students who do not have the financial resources to attend college remain the priority for this initiative. School counselors, teachers, and administrators and community college personnel can collaborate with each other to properly identify students for this initiative.