Community Colleges

The Players Who Influenced Obama’s Free-College Plan

January 11, 2015

The White House proposal to provide free community-college tuition to millions of students bears some familiar fingerprints—from a researcher who championed the idea, a nonprofit group that has pushed some of its key strategies nationwide, and, of course, existing plans in Tennessee and Chicago. Here are a few of the players that appear to have left their marks.

Sara Goldrick-Rab

When Sara Goldrick-Rab argued that two years of college should be free—as she has repeatedly in the past year—most everyone told her that that was impossible. Sometimes there was laughter.

While the idea sounded outrageous to many, she points out that community colleges were initially meant to be free. "It’s where we started," she says. "We got lost."

So President Obama’s announcement has been a vindication for Ms. Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational-policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Last spring she released a paper that proposed giving students two years of free college at any public institution. She presented it at a Lumina Foundation event in April. But even before that, Ms. Goldrick-Rab says, she discussed it with the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.

In the months since then, she has seen the idea gain traction in other corners of higher education. Then, last month, she got a call from an official at the White House saying it was moving forward with a free-college proposal.

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The president’s plan shares some key elements with Ms. Goldrick-Rab’s paper, she says. Both are "first dollar" programs that cover tuition upfront and allow other aid to be used for living expenses. (The Obama administration’s materials have been less than clear about whether that is, in fact, what it suggests.) Neither would require students to earn a particular grade-point average in high school to qualify. And both would cover two years of college.

There are also key differences, Ms. Goldrick-Rab says. While the administration’s proposal is only for community colleges, hers would apply to public four-year colleges as well. And Mr. Obama’s proposal would require students to maintain a 2.5 GPA in college. Ms. Goldrick-Rab doesn’t like that, noting that the average GPA for Pell Grant recipients is 2.0. But if the federal proposal gave low-income students enough support that they could cut back the hours they spend working, she adds, then they would have more time to focus on school work, perhaps leading to higher grades.

This has been an exciting moment for Ms. Goldrick-Rab, who has been frustrated by the way many policy conversations about college affordability have assumed that no additional money is available. "My entire goal," she says, "was to get the president of the United States to put the words ‘free’ and ‘college’ together in a sentence."

Complete College America

Stan Jones, founder and president of this national nonprofit group, has praised the Tennessee Promise, that state’s free-community-college plan, as a strategy that expands college access to students who might have thought it beyond their reach.

The group, which is financed largely by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, works with states to try to streamline remedial-education programs, encourage performance-based financing, and motivate students to attend college full time. Last month it released a study at its national meeting, attended by both educators and politicians, outlining the obstacles on students’ road to completion.

Mr. Jones said he was pleased to see that the White House plan called on colleges to "adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms" to improve student outcomes.

"It’s a false opportunity to let people start without a realistic expectation that they could complete," he said in an interview on Friday.

The White House proposal picks up many of the elements that Complete College America has advocated, but it would allow students to attend either half or full time. Both plans would discourage students from working long hours and juggling a few courses here and there—a strategy seen as one that usually leads to dropping out.

The Tennessee Promise

Tennessee was the first and most active member of Complete College America’s Alliance of States, and it readily embraced many of the solutions the group was promoting, including structured schedules and remediation overhauls. Complete College America had a hand in drafting the legislation tying state funds to graduation rates and other performance measures. "We’ve learned from each other," Mr. Jones said of its partnership with Tennessee.

Photo: Gov. William E. Haslam of Tennessee

City U. of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs

The White House proposal urges community colleges to adopt innovative completion strategies, and it singles out CUNY’s ASAP program, which Complete College America has worked to replicate on other campuses. ASAP, which waives tuition and provides targeted support for full-time students, is one of the signature programs that the advocacy group regularly highlights.

The American Federation of Teachers also piled on the praise for the ASAP program, which is run by faculty and staff members who belong to the federation.

'The Race Between Education and Technology'

The proposal also draws on ideas in a 2008 book by two Harvard University economists, according to an article published online last week by The New York Times.

That book, The Race Between Education and Technology, describes historical moments in which the economy changed. In some of those cases, educational opportunity expanded to meet demand, resulting in greater prosperity for the whole country, explains Lawrence F. Katz, one of the authors. In other cases, education did not keep up, and inequality grew. Human capital, in other words, is crucial.

One period the book delves into is a century ago, at the height of the movement to make high school free and universally available, which offers a possible model for expanding college access today.

The president’s proposal is "intriguing and important," says Claudia Goldin, the other author, adding that she hopes it will lead states to do more to support higher education. It could also demonstrate, she says, that college access is as desired by the "median voter" today as high-school access was back then.

In the book, the authors describe three policies they say are necessary for increasing the country’s supply of college-educated workers. One is to "make financial aid sufficiently generous and transparent so that those who are college-ready can complete a four-year college degree or gain marketable skills at a community college," they write.

That’s not quite saying college should be free—"I’m an economist," says Ms. Goldin. "I don’t use the word ‘free.’ " But it is part of a strong case tying the country’s economic vitality to educational attainment, something that has come through in a number of Mr. Obama’s speeches, Ms. Goldin says.

While the authors weren’t involved in crafting the president’s free-college proposal, Mr. Katz says, "many of his advisers have told me they have read the book."

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at