U.S. education chief: Make community college free

For several months, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has touted the new Tennessee Promise, a program that pays for two years of post-secondary education at any of that state’s community colleges or other institutions that offer associate degrees.

It’s a program Duncan hopes can be replicated across the country, including in Iowa, and can entice high school students to not only attend college but obtain at least a two-year degree.

“Education should be the ultimate bipartisan issue,” said Duncan during a phone interview with The Des Moines Register. “We’re trying to educate our way to a better economy. A high school diploma 30 to 40 years ago was enough to get a good middle-class job, a high-skill, high-wage job, but it’s insufficient today.”

President Barack Obama and Duncan will visit Des Moines’ North High School on Monday to talk with juniors and seniors and their parents about college and how to pay for it. The visit will be Obama’s 18th trip to the state since becoming president.

For at least the past decade in Iowa and nationally, increasing attention has focused on the rising cost of attending college and graduates’ high debt loads. Iowa ranks ninth in the nation in average student debt among college graduates, which for the class of 2013 was $29,370, according to The Project on Student Debt. In addition, 69 percent of Iowa college students graduated with debt, also the ninth highest in the country, the annual study showed.

President’s priority: Cut college costs

Obama has placed a priority on finding ways to reduce the costs of college and student debt.

In January, for instance, the president unveiled a proposal to make two years of community college free to students who meet specific criteria. While the idea has received a cool response from Congress, Obama hasn’t abandoned his enthusiasm for the proposal, which would cost an estimated $60 billion.

This week, he announced the formation of a College Promise Advisory Board, which will work to build support for providing free community college by highlighting programs similar to Tennessee Promise and others in Chicago and Michigan. This summer, Oregon’s governor signed into law a bill developing a program that would provide two years of tuition-free community college.

“We’re trying to build on the good work of the communities around the nation, and we wish Congress was a little bit more functional and folks would come together on this idea of free community college,” said Duncan, who on Monday begins his sixth annual back-to-school bus tour. On Tuesday, he’ll visit Cedar Rapids.

“This isn’t a President Obama idea or an Arne Duncan idea or a Democratic idea,” Duncan said. “It actually came from Gov. (Bill) Haslam, who happens to be a Republican in Tennessee who has done an amazing job with this.”

Money from Tennessee’s state lottery is being used to pay for Tennessee Promise scholarships, which make up the gap between other scholarships and grants.

Iowans voice doubts about cost of ‘free’

Iowa state Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said that while making community college free is a “great idea, I don’t think the state can afford it unless the federal government picked up more of the tab — substantially more — than they do now.”

Jimmy Centers, spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, in an email wrote that there is no “free tuition. There would be a cost to taxpayers while the education is delivered,” he wrote. “The governor’s focus remains on sustainable programs that assist students with financial need and make higher education more accessible and affordable for all.”

Rob Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College, said that when his institution can lower tuition through such things as federal grants, more students attend the school.

“This free community college movement is helping those in the middle of the middle class down to those in poverty — those that need the most help,” Denson said. “Proposals like these provide hope to those individuals locked out of education because they don’t have the finances to pay tuition.”

Presidential candidates pitch their plans 

In a late May Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll, 50 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers and 48 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers said college affordability is a topic they want candidates to spend a lot of time talking about.

At least two Democratic candidates for president have proposed variations of free college tuition. In May, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont proposed eliminating undergraduate tuition at the nation’s public universities and colleges at a cost of $47 billion a year. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in August unveiled a plan for students to attend a four-year public college without taking out student loans for tuition and to attend community colleges without paying tuition.

Another Democratic candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, has proposed reducing debt loads by allowing students to refinance their loans and by setting caps on payments.

Among Republican presidential candidates, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has pitched letting college students deduct tuition costs over their working career. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have called for greater transparency regarding college costs and have proposed plans in which students would agree to pay a percentage of their future income for a set period in exchange for private financing.

Duncan: Also focus on graduation rate 

Duncan, in the interview with the Register, said attention should be focused not only on college affordability but also on ensuring that students graduate.

In Iowa, the most recent Condition of Iowa’s Community Colleges showed a 41 percent student success rate. That means that 41 percent of students either graduated with a two-year degree, transferred to a four-year college or did both.

Educators say that percentage needs to be higher.

“The big thing for young people to be thinking is not just going to college but graduating,” Duncan said. “Whatever your dreams are, whatever your aspirations are, that is the most important thing you can do for yourself in the long term, and for your family.”