President's community college proposal misses mark. States should decide what works best.
Posted on January 20, 2015
President Obama was in the right church but the wrong pew when he proposed providing free community college tuition for some students.
The president was right to celebrate the Tennessee Promise to make two years at community colleges or technical institutes tuition free for graduating high school seniors. Using the presidential bully pulpit in this way will cause other states to ask, "If Tennessee can do it, what can we do to make higher education or workforce preparation work better in our state?"
Obama was also right to support legislation simplifying the absurd 108-question federal student aid application form. Its complexity discourages up to 2 million students from applying for federal aid, according to testimony before the U.S. Senate's education committee.
The president was wrong to try to turn one state's good idea into a huge new federal program. This would put the federal government in charge of regulating the 13th and 14th grades of U.S. education. It would deny students the option to use this new federal aid at private 2-year or 4-year institutions or 4-year public universities, a choice that has been available since 1944 when Congress passed the first federal college access program — the GI Bill. It would spend as much as $60 billion in federal dollars mostly to help students whose income is not low enough to qualify for existing federal aid.
All three of us were university presidents before we became U.S. senators. We have seen firsthand how the generous system of federal student aid works. More than half of America's 20 million college students have a federal grant or loan to help pay for college. Taxpayers loan $100 billion a year at low rates to students without asking for a credit check and with generous repayment terms.
In addition, taxpayers give $33 billion annually to 9.2 million students in federal Pell Grants of up to $5,730. One third of these Pell Grants are used at community colleges — where 37% of students have a Pell Grant and the average annual tuition is $3,300. In 16 states — including California, Texas and Florida — the average Pell Grant received by a community college student covers the entire tuition bill.
The president's program would use federal dollars to make community college free for students who either didn't qualify for Pell because their household income was too high, or because Pell didn't cover the entire cost of their education. Instead of creating an expensive new federal program that misses the mark, the president and Congress should enact bipartisan legislation introduced this month by six senators that would:
- Reduce the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) form from 108-questions to just two questions: 1) What is your family size? And, 2) What was your household income two years ago?
- Allow high school juniors to learn how much in federal aid they are eligible for as they start to look at colleges.
- Streamline the federal grant and loan programs by combining two federal grant programs into one Pell Grant program and reducing the six different federal loan programs into three.
- Restore year-round Pell Grant availability and provide flexibility so students can study at their own pace.
- Discourage over-borrowing.
- Simplify repayment options.
Community colleges are the best buy and the most nimble part of higher education. If you want to change those two things, the surest way to do that is a new federal program that misses the mark. Instead, we recommend letting other states do for themselves what Tennessee has done if it fits their circumstances. The right way for the federal government to help is pay for new Pell Grants that will be applied for and awarded if other states emulate "Tennessee Promise" and if Congress reduces paperwork and allows students to use Pell Grants year-round.
Sens. Lamar Alexander, Roy Blunt and Ben Sasse are Republicans from Tennessee, Missouri and Nebraska, respectively.