Nationwide Free Community College Assessed by an Expert

By Campaign for College Opportunity

Communications Manager Jamal E. Mazyck

Long Beach City College District Superintendent-President Eloy Ortiz Oakley has been quite vocal about his position in support of the recently proposed America’s College Promise initiative from the Obama Administration. The proposal aims to make two years of community college free for responsible students and highlights the need for two-year institutions to strengthen their student success programs. On the heels of the launch of Heads Up America, an independent campaign to raise awareness on the significance of community colleges, I sat down with President Oakley, who helped launch The Long Beach Promise with former president of California State University Long Beach F. King Alexander, and Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Christopher J. Steinhauser. The initiative is designed to improve college preparation, access and completion for locals. Among other guarantees, the Long Beach Promise offers a free year of tuition to Long Beach high school students at Long Beach City College. Upon community college completion, students are then offered guaranteed admission to CSU-Long Beach. Most recently, the City of Long Beach became involved by offering internships to students in this unique pipeline. I discussed how President Oakley’s academic and professional career path has shaped his view on the prospect of free community college for responsible students.

 

Q: Community colleges in California are largely responsible for training the state’s workforce. Based on your experience as a community college student, administrator, and President, how important are community colleges to California’s economy?

A: California Community Colleges are the gateway to the majority of first-generation, students of color into what is now are making up the bulk of the workforce. California, as well as the national and global economy, has completely changed over the last ten years. A high school diploma was once the default to get into the workforce. Now that is no longer the case. I agree with President Obama that the default now is some sort of postsecondary credential, whether that’s an associate’s degree or beyond. For those reasons California Community Colleges really are the linchpin to our future success. Either we are going to get it right, or we are not going to get it right. I am going to do everything I can to make sure we get it right.

Q: Could you point out some of the reasons why you think community college should be free?

A: I am a proponent of creating the right incentives for students and for institutions. Although the media has sort of taken the President’s proposal and focused on the word “free”, to me that’s nothing more than just one incentive as part of a whole picture to create clearer structured pathways for students into and out of our community colleges and beyond. When I hear the President talk about the America’s College Promise campaign, I see that as part of an overall collection of strategies to get more access and more success for students. The President’s proposal is modeled most recently on the Tennessee Promise or the Long Beach Promise, or the Kalamazoo Promise. Access is just one aspect of it. Creating access that has an incentive to be serious is another part of it. When we say the word “free”, it’s not free for anybody, it is free for responsible students. So we want to encourage students to get in, pick areas of emphasis or majors that get them to a degree as quickly as possible, and we want to encourage them to go full-time and also encourage our institutions to create pathways that allow them to do so. The President’s proposal is about encouraging more colleges to create these structured pathways and encouraging more students to take advantage of them. Just like we made high school free, we should make these first two years free to students who are serious about getting some postsecondary education.

This conversation is important because if we just focus on the word “free” we are missing the point. And the point is, less than 100 years ago, this nation had a debate about whether high school should be free. And then we as a nation decided that we want every young person to have a high school diploma, not because we were altruistic, but because we realized as a nation that this was the minimum amount of education our citizens needed to get into the workforce to be successful. Today the high school diploma is no longer going to satisfy that anymore so if we are now saying that postsecondary education is the minimum, then why not finance it in a way that makes it accessible to every student. Just as we hold students responsible to get through high school and get the diploma, then why don’t we do the same thing for responsible students? That’s the part of the rhetoric I try to get people to focus on. We all know nothing’s free but we should create an expectation that we want all students to get some sort of credential after high school.

Q: Leaders sometimes make decisions that may be seen as risky. Part of leadership, per one of the organizational strategy leadership competencies, stipulated by the American Association of Community Colleges, is the ability to make “risky” decisions. Why did you feel a “risky” program like this was necessary for the greater Long Beach community and by extension, is America’s College Promise a “risky” initiative?

A: It’s risky from the point of view that it is a proposal that’s being promulgated by an administration facing bipartisanship challenges. The proposal in it of itself is risky, but the rhetoric is not. I think the President is very good at creating a new dialogue. Anytime you introduce a new dialogue, a new paradigm, a new way of looking at something, you’re going to create a debate. Some of it is going to be completely out of the ballpark coming from the left, and the right. Everyone is going to weigh in.

What the President has done well is force this conversation to happen. From that, communities, states, and consortiums will create their own solutions to this and create a movement. I think that is what they are trying to do, is to create a movement. There are no ideas that completely transform overnight. If you look at the most recent debate on gay marriage, marijuana legalization, these things take time. Once they start rolling, things start to happen. Some states have picked up the ball and run with it like Oregon, and Tennessee. The conversation is also happening here in California.

So I think yes, there was risk when the proposal first launched, but if you just narrowly focus on the legislation that was introduced in Congress, it is easy to say the bill is risky and will go nowhere. What we miss that is going somewhere, is the conversation. How it all comes out in the end is hard to tell but I do not think there is any chance we will go back to the old way of thinking. Now that this door has opened, what is it going to look like once we walk through it?

Q: The Long Beach Promise continues to be praised nationally for increasing student success rates and has similar components in the most recent iteration of America’s College Promise. What is the benefit of free community college for everyone nationwide?

A: On the positive side, even though this is attributed to President Obama, the fact of the matter is, a lot of states, states that are very Republican have seized on this issue for a long time that they want a better-trained workforce because they understand how their economies work.

Republican Governor Bill Haslam in Tennessee, recognized how they are going to address it and they went for it. Once the politics shake out, states will look at this as a place that they want to go to and we are going to see various versions of how to get there. By creating these state dialogues and recruiting a bipartisan effort, more states will begin to latch on. More communities will adopt what goes on with the Americas College Promise.

A lot of my colleagues in the state are asking me, how are we going to do the first semester free, then to one year, and so forth? We are having conversations with the Department of Finance about the Board of Governor’s fee waiver. 80% of my students here at Long Beach City do not pay any fees. In a sense we already have an America’s College Promise but we don’t even recognize it. So then the question becomes, how do we use those resources to really get at what we all believe is necessary to getting more students through a credential, which will be different than Tennessee, different from Oregon?

Q: Harsh criticism from the higher education community has surfaced since the initial announcement of America’s College Promise in January. The pushback centers on the supposed dilution of higher education and does not help much, particularly in California since community college fees are relatively low and fee waivers are available for low-income students. What would you say to those critics?

A: Strip away all of your beliefs about what you think higher education is, and get down to the basic issue. What do you want from your citizenry, and how do you finance that? We can talk about what it will do to California or not do, but nearly two-thirds of California students are getting a subsidy right now. The challenge is that people do not value that subsidy because they do not even understand it. It just happens. You fill out this little form and you get the (fee) waiver. No one feels it. The taxpayer doesn’t realize that they are making a huge investment.

What if we turn the conversation to, now that we are making this investment, how are we making a better use of this investment? Can we target it more? Can we encourage more students to not only fill out the Board of Governor’s fee waiver form but to actually apply to the Free Application for Student Aid (FASFA) to get more Cal Grant dollars, more Pell Grant dollars so they can be encouraged and empowered, and reduce their time to degree? The challenge we have with the Board of Governor’s fee waiver is that it’s so easy and you don’t have to fill out the FAFSA. Students actually lose the opportunity to go to college full-time (because they don’t access other student aid they may qualify for). The cost of education isn’t just the tuition we charge, it’s the books, the living expenses, and the opportunity cost of not working and going to school. We have a very disjointed way of looking at higher education finance in California and we are missing the opportunity to really highlight and direct this huge investment to drive behavior, which is what we should be doing.

Q: After just being confirmed by the California Senate to serve on the University of California Board of Regents, how do you see America’s College Promise streamlining transfer pathways for community college students to the UC system, particularly for students of color?

A: I look at the systems in California as one large system, which I think was the hope of the Master Plan. If you look at is as one large system, how do we encourage the right kinds of behaviors, for students, for taxpayers, for institutions to do the best they can to educate our citizenry?

We are public institutions and we need to be reminded of that. The College promise fits right into that. If we create structured pathways through community colleges that really incentivize institutions and students to get through, it will reduce the cost of education, which is a big issue for the UC system. It will create additional capacity for more students, increase the diversity pool that the UC can draw from. The UC can be further incentivized to create structured pathways through transfer reform. There are multiple benefits. Once we are done with the word “free”, we can get to the real conversation of how to lower the cost and get through faster and in greater numbers.

Q: As President Obama announces the Heads Up movement along with Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden, what do you see as the next steps for legislative, community college administrators and CEO, and supporters of America’s College Promise?

A: The Heads Up campaign was the beginning of the College Promise Campaign. Former U.S. Department of Education Undersecretary Martha Kanter is leading the charge. The campaign support came from a number large organizations. Heads Up is targeting 11 states including California to develop more “promise” programs. The goal is to create a grassroots movement in these 11 states to raise these conversations to encourage more low-cost or no-cost pathways. The American Association of Community Colleges is on board, Association of Community College Trustees is on board, and the American Association of State Colleges & Universities is tentatively supportive. There is also a 4-yr component. The legislative component in DC will be there but the conversation will shift to the states to try to create change that way. It’s going to take some time. The reality of the politics is still going to be there. States have the greatest influence on higher education policy and can make that change on their own, just like Tennessee and Oregon have. If it means a California College Promise, then that’s where we will go. There’s a three-year horizon on this bipartisan effort that intentionally outlasts President Obama’s term in hopes to get more states to come around.