#FreeCommunityCollege Series - John McGreal

This week, we’re running a series of posts on #FreeCommunityCollege from professionals from across the industry. The goal is to cover the basics and offer differing viewpoints to begin the conversation before our chat on the topic this Thursday at 9PM ET.

Today’s post comes from John McGreal, Regional Recruiter for the University of Alabama. Read more about John here or connect with him on Twitter.

America's College Promise --

The upside of the program is clear and present, however in the hours and days after the announcement was made I find myself conflicted over it.  The premise is fantastic! Give every student in America the opportunity to achieve an Associate’s degree or technical training without cost as long as they are willing to work for it.  Since the President’s speech, ‘willing to work for it’ has been defined.  Students would need to maintain a 2.5 GPA.  While this program sounds great in the abstract, there are a number of concerns that will have to be addressed.

The estimated cost for this program is 60 billion dollars in the first ten years.  The revenue for the program has yet to be identified.  State governments who choose to opt into the program will be required to pick up the remaining 25%; an additional 20 billion dollars.  For the federal government to come up with this amount of revenue, taxes will have to be levied or other programs will have to be squeezed.  This could mean the end of the Pell grant which makes a higher education affordable for roughly 9 million students at various points in their undergraduate education.  State government would need raise their share as well.  They will turn to funding to public/flagship institutions in their state, they will do away with programs like the MAP grant [Illinois version of the Pell grant], or again rise their income tax.

Student motivation and preparation is another concern.  Entitlement programs run into people not taking the desired advantage.  Students might not be as motivated to achieve high academic honors if they are not responsible for paying for their education.  The program does require a 2.5 GPA in order to continue to be eligible for it.  Hopefully this will incentivize students enough to strive to excellence while attending community college. However, students who benefit from a ‘gap’ year may not consider taking a year off before starting college.  For some students who need additional time to mature before heading off to college the gap year can be essential to their future success. With community college becoming an entitlement, some students may not think twice about whether or not it is the right choice for them.  An emphasis will need to be placed on career counseling at community to ensure that students are using their time and this opportunity to its fullest.  In the event that students do not succeed due to lack of motivation or lack of preparedness, they would also be saddled with a low GPA that will follow them during their entire education experience.  This will cause the students to suffer and the system of higher education to shift.

This would also cause a few tectonic shifts within higher education as a whole.  First, the community college system would be extremely taxed within the first few years of implementation.  If the program takes off the way it should, there will be an influx of students into the system.  This will cause class sizes to skyrocket before the colleges could afford to hire new teachers.  Smaller facilities will not be able to handle the number of courses being offered at one time.  This will result in the need for new, larger facilities to be built—again before the revenue is in hand.  Overcrowding could lead to falling scores within the curriculum.  Any study on educational best practices shows that smaller class sizes are more conducive to learning.

Secondly, the 4-year institutions will be faced with some interesting challenges.  They will see a dip in revenue from two areas.  With less first-year and second year students on campus, universities will need to focus on transfer recruitment and compact agreements between them and community colleges.  The new standard could easily be 2 + 2 agreements for bachelors programs [or even 2 + 3 programs that allow students to graduate with a masters upon completion. This is already happening to some effect with programs like 5-year MBAs, 6-year Physical Therapy Doctoral programs, and so on.].  Smaller colleges and universities could face large budget short falls that could cause them to close down entirely.   Student services offered at 4-year schools would also have to be evaluated.  With more students focused on entering their chosen careers first-year programing might have to be cut and less student activities offered. On the other hand, career services will become much more crucial to institution.  There will likely be many more students focused on their career and internship opportunities.

Lastly, admissions staffs and enrollment management professionals will have to rethink their processes within the funnel.  Less first-year students will consider 4-year institutions to start off their college career.  The transfer funnel is 6 months and you are usually working with at least two at a time.  Admission counselors and recruiters will have to adjust their mindset.  The office will undergo a reshaping to focus more on transfer recruitment.  However, more scholarship money could devoted to transfer students to aid them in completing their degree. This could greatly assist in the current student debt crisis in the US.

America’s College Promise could be a great program, but there will be many issues and road blocks that have to be addressed by the federal government.  If implemented properly, if state governments can be brought on board, this quixotic program can be a game changer for students across America.