By Kirsty-Louise Hunt
Last month, President Obama announced his support for making two years of community college tuition free for every student in the US. Speaking to a room full of students at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee. Obama outlined what’s been dubbed as ‘America’s College Promise’. Modelled off a programme by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, the new proposals essentially boil down to this – two years of community college will be free to all students ‘willing to work for it’. Any student with a decent grade average and attendance will qualify and the programme, which is being touted to help 9 million students save about $4,000 a year, is estimated to cost $60bn over 10 years.
The populist move will, no doubt, delight students and community college professionals. ‘America’s College Promise’ is intended to help fulfil the promise of the so-called American dream and the most common theme that epitomises the idea of a nation – equal opportunity. Community colleges provide two-year associate degrees and often act as a means of transition for students who wish to go further and obtain a bachelor degree from a traditional four year institution.
“For millions of Americans, community colleges are essential pathways to the middle class,” the President said. “I want to make it free.”
Obama’s policy, in optics and tone, is a welcome move in the right direction – but it would be folly to assume this policy is a silver bullet solution to the headache that is the US’s profit-drive byzantine college education system. The proposals don’t do anything to address spiralling fees at for-profit colleges, the issue of under-employment after graduation and the problem of student loan debt. In 2013, the average US college student graduated $32,500 dollars in debt. In total, outstanding student loan debt exceeds the eye-watering figure of $1 trillion. There’s also a growing problem with senior citizens still trying to pay off their college debt at retirement age, and 27% of loans held by those aged 65-74 are in default.
It’s a stark comparison to the situation we find ourselves in, here in Scotland. The number of students studying at Scottish Universities is at an all-time high, and UCAS figures for 2013/2014 showed that the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to University has doubled in the last decade.
Free education is important – as a principle, the education of our young people is a birth-right and not a commodity, but also for our economy and the long-term impact that unmanageable student loan debt has.
I had a conversation just before Christmas with a friend who lives in London, who had been up visiting for the festive season. We’re at the same level of education, and studying the same degree subject. We got to chatting about University and the usual suspects came up – student loan arrangements, being skint, the soul-rattling panic that comes at the thought of graduation next year and the excitement/terror of the great unknown that looms afterward. In tandem, was the acknowledgment that as a student at an English University, she would be saddled with tuition fee repayment for the foreseeable future – something, based only on where I live and have chosen to study, I’ve been allowed to avoid. I know how lucky that makes me, and I’m grateful for that fact.
But equally, we can’t pretend that free education solves it all. Making post-high school education free is important but, to use the jargon, more early intervention work needs to be done at improving education at all levels, if the policy is to work fairly. Because if the principle of free education is that everyone gets an equal shot at success then we can’t continue to have a situation where our Universities are dominated by students from well-off or privileged backgrounds. Yes, more students from Scotland’s most deprived areas are applying to University than ever before according to UCAS figures, but students from the most well-off areas are still almost ten times more likely to go to a top University.
In Scotland’s further education colleges, the closest comparison to the ‘community colleges’ targeted in Obama’s promise, full-time equivalent student numbers are up this year – but the numbers of students over-all are down and are faced with increasingly tough decisions as budgets are squeezed. Part-time provision and the essential skills-training provided by our colleges is essential for the strength of our economy, and it’s important that funding free education doesn’t come at the expense of excluding sections of society from it.
The key underlying theme of Obama’s proposals is to help aid that problem – targeting social exclusion and giving encouragement to students – perhaps mature students looking to re-train, or people from disadvantaged backgrounds – to use community colleges as a pathway to greater success. If implemented and successful in its goal, that can only be a good thing – and the President has done a good job in placing the issue of education funding on the agenda. So, in the immortal words of Jenna Marbles – thanks Obama. Seriously.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’).appendChild(s);