It is beyond time to reimagine the relationship between higher education and the federal student loan and grant programs, as well as the loan forgiveness, public service and income repayment plans that create confusion.
It is beyond repair and must be trashed.
There was a time the Pell grant was able to cover most of the tuition expense to attend a higher education institution. This is no longer the case. The Common Fund Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) estimates the average tuition inflation rate to be around 4.5% for next year. For those intimately involved with higher education and pricing, we know as the federal government increases the Pell amount, higher education factors the increased Pell into their planning for tuition increase. Meaning, although the Pell increases, there is zero benefit to the student.
It is time for the federal government to get out of the business of education loans, loan forgiveness programs, income repayment plans and dept forgiveness. It will be less expensive to provide a free community college education.
In lieu of education loans, the federal government must make public community college free to all students and adults pursuing a sub-baccalaureate credential. The federal government would cover the full cost of attendance including tuition, fees, books, computer, supplies, etc. as required by the community college.
The model eliminates the need for state-funded last-dollar scholarships. However, those funds are redirected to provide a subsidy to students requiring childcare, food, or transportation. Thereby addressing issues students often identify as reasons for dropping out or prolonging the time to degree completion.
The proposal for free community college education provides opportunity to all students and adults by starting and completing at a community college. Federal regulations on gainful employment provide assurance majors like cosmetology or majors with projected compensation below the poverty level are not eligible with this initiative.
The free community college program is available for up to eight semesters (clock starts at time of initial enrollment) or degree completion whichever comes first. The eight semesters acknowledge that students have family and work responsibilities. Students must remain in good academic standing, making progress toward degree completion and remain continuously enrolled. All students will have access to a one-time hardship waiver.
Community college presidents and chief finance officers will certify student attendance and participation via measured academic work by the 12th fall semester date. A similar process continues for the spring and summer semester. Any community college investigated and found to be in violation by providing false certification to state and federal Department of Education will be removed from the program.
Upon completing a community college degree, graduates can enroll at a four-year university with junior class standing, needing only 60 additional credits to complete a BA degree.
However, because this proposal eliminates the federal student loan and repayment options, students must pursue private loans to pay for their bachelor degree education.
Private lenders can determine a student or family creditworthiness and risk tied to major, employment and other factors to pay back the loan.
High school graduates bypassing the free community college option, enrolling directly in a four-year college or university also will need to seek out private lenders or rely on higher education institutions to provide scholarships.
Any student or adult pursuing a BA, MA, Ph.D, or other professional credential will need to seek private lenders.
Students or adults starting their education at a four-year university or for-profit and transferring to a community college are not eligible for the free community college education.
The federal government-subsidized sub-baccalaureate program is not available to for-profit education institutions, industry sponsored programs, collective bargaining sponsored training programs or any agency other than a public accredited community college.
There are potentially good benefits to four-year universities:
1. Transferring community college students will be better academically prepared for the academic rigors of a four-year university. Likely transfer student retention and graduation rates will increase.
2. Universities can primarily focus on serving upper division, 300 and 400 level courses and instruction, thereby reducing overall campus expense, holding tuition steady.
3. It is reasonable to expect, students electing to bypass the free community college option and enroll directly to a four-year university are academically prepared with a better sense of a major to pursue, resulting in institution improved retention and graduating rates.
Finally, the proposal has the potential to eliminate the contentious debate on affirmative action, race, and class, as the initiative is available to every student. Community colleges by nature of its open access admission policies are the most race/ethnically diverse institutions within the U.S. higher education landscape. In addition, the argument on the cost of higher education will subside. The government is guaranteeing every student and adult has access to a free sub-baccalaureate credential.
Now, it is possible free community college will place some Tier II and Tier III colleges out of business. But who cares? The proposal is not about saving Tier II or Tier III colleges. It is about getting the U.S. government out of the student education loan and repayment business and ensuring all students and adults have an opportunity to pursue a free sub-baccalaureate degree.
A free sub-baccalaureate credential is a wonderful opportunity to allow every candidate to reach their potential.
Dr. Michael Gargano is the CEO of The Education Think Tank. He is a former president at St. Vincent’s College; Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs in Connecticut State College and University System.