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Morning Edition

Head Of N.H. Community Colleges: Obama's Plan 'Bold,' Costs Still A Question



President Obama announced last week he wants to make community college free for students across the country.

Now, that would come with a hefty price tag – the federal government would have to pick up $60 billion in costs over the next decade, with participating states paying for the other 25 percent.

Students would also have to maintain a 2.5 GPA.

The ambitious initiative has sparked a lot of discussion in higher ed circles.

Ross Gittell is chancellor of the state’s community college system and he joins Morning Edition to talk about his reaction to the president’s proposal.

What did you think when you first heard about the president’s plan?

I thought it was bold. It’s ambitious. And it’s important. There’s been a lot of discussion. I’ve gotten a lot of emails, a lot of texts, a lot of phone calls from people asking what its implications would be for New Hampshire and what its implications would be for students across the state of New Hampshire.

Let’s talk about those implications. What are they?

If community colleges in New Hampshire and across the country were to be free without tuition, it would definitely have a significant impact in increasing the numbers of students who go on to post-secondary education and enhance their education and training. And it would have implications for the economy.

There’s already financial assistance in the form of Pell grants for those students who truly can’t afford it. What’s the argument for having taxpayers pay for those who can afford it?

Well, Pell grants are paid for taxpayers. It would enhance the Pell grant program’s impact by allowing more and more students to be able to afford a community college education. Right now, basically if you’re eligible for the full Pell grant, community college in New Hampshire would be free after the Pell grant was applied to the cost of the tuition. But there are also others costs associated with going to college. There’s the books, there’s the travel back and forth to a community college.

So what this program would allow is not only more students to have access to lower cost if not free community college, but also enhance the ability of students who currently now benefit from the full Pell grant to supplement that.  

Even though, I have to put a caveat on that. The details of the Obama proposal still have to be worked through, and then it would have to go through Congress. So this is very preliminary.

Are you concerned at all that making it free would somehow devalue community college for students? The idea being that when you’re paying for something, there’s more ownership.

I think that’s part of the idea behind the requirement for the 2.5 GPA, and that’s similar to other programs states have considered. So I think putting some significant responsibility on the student to take advantage of that in a beneficial way, the free tuition. So I think the details will be very important not only nationally, but in New Hampshire because there would be state costs associated with this.

OK, so this is a big idea with a big price tag. Do you think it’s realistic to expect any of this will actually happen, given Republicans now control both chambers of Congress?

I think at a bare minimum, what it’s done is to raise people’s consciousness about community colleges; the role they play in enabling access to the broader educational and economic opportunity. And the role they play in training an educated workforce for a strong economy. So at a minimum, it has people talking about that.

It was about a century ago that this country started to put in place universal high school. And now, a lot has changed over the last 100 years. The question is when we say that our citizens across say the state of New Hampshire should have easy access, free access to an education beyond that high school education. When should it go to the first two years of college? That’s really what this proposal is all about.

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