Don’t dismiss free tuition without debate

January 24, 2015

by Joyce Helens, President, St. Cloud Technical & Community College
January 24, 2015

National and state politicians are proposing that two years at public community colleges be free for “responsible” students.

President Obama suggests the federal government would provide funding to states that equals three quarters of the average, full-time annual community college tuition. States would have to provide a match so that students who maintain a 2.5 GPA, and are in approved degree or certificate programs, can attend college tuition-free.

This proposal is based on the Tennessee Promise, a program using lottery money to pay tuition for any high school graduate to attend a public two-year college within Tennessee, starting with the class of 2015.

Senate leaders in Minnesota have announced that a similar tuition-free plan is one of their top agenda items this legislative session. Because the price tags for these proposals are not fully known and given that the funds would come with a number of strings attached, it would be appropriate for discussion to begin. But what is being reported is pushback and not discussion.

Pushback occurs when we retreat to defend our own positions, whatever they may be, and especially when funding is involved. If you get a bigger piece of the pie, it might come out of mine!

It is interesting, inspiring and disappointing to read the immediate reactions to this controversial idea of free college at public community colleges. One interesting piece: “I owe it all to community college” (New York Times, Jan. 14), where Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks explains how his community college career transformed his life, crediting his community college for training him in the skills that defined him as a successful actor and producer.

Inspiring are the scores of success stories, particularly that of NASA scientist Adam Steltzner, the lead engineer whose team created and successfully landed the Rover on Mars, who was told he would never amount to anything but a ditch digger because of his poor high school math performance. It was enrolling at a local community college that turned his life around , he says, and created the fire in him for studying science and math and then applying that learning in real life.

Disappointing is the example of University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, who was quoted Jan. 15 by Minnesota Public Radio as saying, “We need higher aspirations than just community college for the citizens of Minnesota” and “I don’t think it’s wise for the state to only invest in two-year programs.”

I expected more enlightened thinking from President Kaler and less elitist pushback.

First of all, the investment would not be in two-year programs. The investment would be in people, enabling people to enroll in institutions that traditionally provide excellent, relevant and flexible programming to anyone who wants to partake of it.

And, it is really not difficult to see, if we extend our sight beyond protecting turf, that what we need to embrace together nationally, statewide and locally is a well-lighted path for students so that higher education connects with being a good citizen and establishing oneself in a fulfilling career.

These things are not mutually exclusive. Some in higher education just make it that way.

Community college graduates create and maintain our communities' infrastructures, keep commerce thriving thru small business development, take care of our health and safety, all the while raising families and contributing to the quality of life we enjoy here in Minnesota. What "higher aspirations" are there for Minnesotans?

Realizing that lifelong learning is a continuum, we see how critical establishing this well-lighted path is for students. Hanks and Steltzner transferred to state universities after being successfully launched at the community college, as it is with many of our graduates. That pathway must be seamless and transparent.

Legislators and leaders in higher education, both faculty and administration, need to collectively support and invest in pathways that provide opportunities for all Minnesotans to create a better future for themselves, for their families, and for their communities.

This is the leading core value stated in Charting the Future for a prosperous Minnesota, a Minnesota State Colleges and Universities effort promoting transformation of higher education that also has been met, by some, with pushback.

The bottom line here is that investment in higher education transforms lives which is an important force for positive societal change. Pushback wastes precious resources whereas authentic discussion will deliver results.

Horace Mann, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives who launched widespread discussions on free public education more than 150 years ago, said it best: "If ever there was a cause, if ever there can be a cause, worthy to be upheld by all of toil to sacrifice that the human heart can endure, it is the cause of Education."

This is the opinion of St. Cloud Technical & Community College President Joyce Helens. To A Higher Degree is published the fourth Sunday of the month and rotates among the presidents of the four largest Central Minnesota higher education institutions.

Kate Wallace
Posted in Higher Degree