March 26, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 41°F


Free community college threatens private college enrollment

President Barack Obama’s plan for a program to cover the cost of community college tuition for students across the country has sparked debate among congressional leaders, but Ithaca College has yet to discuss the issue in depth.

Obama’s plan, dubbed “America’s College Promise,” will make the first two years of community college free for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and are working toward completing a degree. The federal government would cover three-quarters of the average community cost and have participating states cover the remaining amount.

The plan also requires community colleges to offer programs that transfer to four-year colleges, or vocational training programs that lead to degrees or certificates that employers often demand.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, it is unclear whether small private institutions, such as Ithaca College, will have their enrollment hurt by Obama’s community college plan.

Currently, Eric Maguire, vice president of enrollment and communication, said the college does not compete with community colleges for students.

“At this time, we do not overlap too extensively with community colleges, meaning the students who are applying to Ithaca College are considering other selective private and public four-year institutions to a much greater extent than community colleges,” Maguire said.

At the Jan. 20 Faculty Council meeting, Peter Rothbart, Faculty Council chair and professor of music theory, history and composition, asked Gerald Hector, vice president of finance and administration, whether the administration had taken into account Obama’s community college proposal.

Rothbart said he believed the proposal would have deep ramifications for the college academically, but he said he wondered if it could also affect the college financially. Rothbart said the college has had troubles with transfer students from community colleges due to the requirements of the Integrative Core Curriculum. The ICC has specific class requirements for each perspective, classes that community colleges may not offer the equivalent of. In the fall of 2014, only 97 students transferred to the institution, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research. There is no data available from the Common Data Set on how many of those students transferred from a community college.

In response, Hector said his office and other college administrative offices had yet to talk about Obama’s proposal.

Obama’s plan is modeled after the “Tennessee Promise,” a program which covers community college tuition for graduating high school seniors in Tennessee by using the state’s lottery profits.

In Tennessee, over 57,000 high school seniors applied for the program, with state officials expecting 12,000–16,000 to take advantage of the program.

In the State of the Union address, Obama compared his community college plan to the early 20th-century universal high school movement.

“America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free,” Obama said. “But in a 21st-century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to do more.”

One of the major differences between the free high school movement from the early 20th century and Obama’s plan is that Obama’s plan calls for federal money.

The White House estimated if all states participate, the program could help 9 million students. It also estimated the plan could save the average community college student $3,800 in tuition per year. If those estimates are both accurate, the cost of covering tuition for students across the country would be over $34 billion a year.

During a “60 Minutes” interview, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said he believed the government couldn’t spend the money for Obama’s community college plan.

“We added more debt during the Obama years than all the presidents from George Washington down to George Bush,” McConnell said. “And giving away free tuition strikes me as something we can’t afford.”

During the State of the Union, Obama highlighted the main motivation behind his proposal.

“We still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need,” Obama said in his address. “It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future.”

Max Denning can be reached at or via Twitter: @TheMaxDenning