WBAI, the venerable NYC public radio station, had me on this morning to talk about Obama’s free community college proposal. You can find a stream of the segment here for the next couple of weeks — click on Haskins in the Morning for January 12, and skip forward to the 15-minute mark.

Anyway, it was a great interview, and it gave me the opportunity to provide a wide-ranging take on the subject, so I’ve transcribed it for y’all — edited lightly for clarity.

WBAI: Turning now to the announcement last week that President Obama made about a plan to make the first two years of community college free for all students. Under a program dubbed “America’s College Promise,” Obama administration officials have said that an estimated nine million student a year nationwide could benefit. The average tuition savings for a student at a two-year college is estimated to be $3800 a year. The administration so far has declined to provide an estimate of the cost to the federal government overall, but they said states would be expected to share about a quarter of the expense. Obama’s goal, said Cecilia Munoz, the White House’s domestic policy director, is “to make two years of college the norm the way high school is the norm.” Joining us to talk about what this change could mean, not just for students, but for teachers at community colleges around the country, is Angus Johnston. Angus is a historian of American student activism who teaches history at CUNY’s Hostos Community College. He also runs the website studentactivism.net. Angus, thanks for being with us this morning.

AJ: Good morning! Thanks for having me.

WBAI: So, as a community college teacher yourself, I wonder: What’s your reaction to Obama’s announcement of this program for a free two years of community college?

AJ: Well, there are things to be cautious about, certainly, but in the main I’m really excited. I think it’s been a long time coming, and I think it’s a tremendous opportunity — not only for students and faculty, but also for people organizing around access to higher ed.

WBAI: So what are some of the logistical questions that arise for you with a plan like this, in a place like New York City, and in a community college like yours, which is Hostos, one of the CUNY community colleges? What are some of the challenges facing community colleges, and how do you think this proposal might affect them logistically?

AJ: The biggest challenge for students is for those who intend to do a four-year degree who would choose this option as a low-cost way to start that process. Because we know that when students start at a community college and intend to transfer to a four-year school, a lot of them wind up falling by the wayside. That’s something that needs to be eased as much as possible, but it’s also something that will be encouraged by this plan. More students who intend to obtain a four-year degree will start at a community college if this gets implemented, and I’m a bit nervous about that.

WBAI: And can you tell us why? Why does that make you nervous? I mean, some of the reactions that I saw on Twitter from people who teach at places like Kingsborough Community College and Borough of Manhattan Community College was, “Oh my God, I can’t imagine having more students in those facilities, how could we possibly manage an increase in students?” Is that something you’re worried about?

AJ: It’s something I’m excited about! I mean, if we have more community college students, then we have to have the facilities for them, we have to have the faculty for them. Certainly it will be a matter of pushing hard to ensure that the faculty who are hired — and we will have to hire more faculty if we have more students — we’ll push hard to ensure that the faculty who are hired are full-time faculty on the tenure track, because we’ve got a huge problem with adjunctification at community colleges. But that’s something I think that we should welcome — that challenge of transforming our institutions to meet this new need.

WBAI: I do want to come back to the labor question that you raised, the question of who the people are who are going to be teaching these new students, and what this means for the labor question of, as you mentioned, adjunct labor and the tenure track in community colleges. But first, I just want to talk about the state funding aspect of this proposal. So Obama has said that one quarter of the funding for this plan will have to come from the states, and I wonder, based on your experience here in New York, how feasible you think that is. Is that a roadblock for this? What has been the trend in New York’s budget for community colleges? We’ve been seeing big reductions — would this require a big turnaround?

AJ: Well, throughout the country we’ve seen a disinvestment by the states in higher education — at the community college level, and even more intensely at the four-year college level. I think the intent here — and there are a lot of details that haven’t been released — but I think the intent here is to make the federal portion of the financial package so attractive to the states that they would pony up the money to match it because it’s a better deal for them, it’s a better deal for their students. And it’s also going to be, presumably, hard for a state to say, “Oh yes, we had the opportunity to make community college free for all of our students, but we chose not to do it, because we don’t have the” — whatever the dollar figure would be. So a lot of it is going to come down to the question of what exactly the federal government is proposing as far as this cost-sharing goes, and will it be a carrot rather than a stick for the states.

WBAI: Right, right. And so, I know that — one of the things that you mentioned before, an issue that a number of people have raised since this announcement, is the labor implications of the program. According to an adjunct faculty advocacy group called the New Faculty Majority, seventy percent of community college faculty are part-time. How do you think the Obama plan might affect the work of community college teachers and what you call the adjunctification of community college labor?

AJ: First of all, let me just say, and I apologize for seeming to disagree with your premise, but one thing that I want to say is that we have to distinguish between adjunct faculty and part-time faculty.

WBAI: Right. That’s a good point.

AJ: Because a lot of folks who are adjuncts are essentially full-time — in fact, including myself, I’m an adjunct faculty member teaching what is essentially a full-time courseload. So there’s that. But yes, it’s a huge problem. It’s a problem in community colleges and it’s a problem across the board in American higher education. And I think, again, one of the things that we’re going to have to do — as faculty members, as people who care about American higher ed, we’re going to have to see this not as something that’s being delivered from on high, but as something that we need to fight for. We need to fight to shape what the original proposal looks like, we need to fight to get something good passed, we need to fight to make sure that whatever is passed is something that is sustainable, and is good for us and good for our students. We need reinvestment in higher education, and we need reinvestment in full-time faculty, and we’ve had a very serious long term trend away from that. And I think that reimagining higher education as something that is a right for all Americans gives us an opportunity to reassert the importance and the centrality of having faculty who have the capacity and the tools to do the job right.

WBAI: Absolutely.

WBAI: Angus Johnston is a historian of American student activism. He teaches history at CUNY’s Hostos Community College. Angus, could you tell us — you talked about students falling by the wayside, initially coming in for a two-year program and not going on to complete their degrees. Could you just briefly flesh that out for us for a bit? What happens to these students who, as you say, fall by the wayside?

AJ: Sure. There are two things going on here. One is that graduation rates for community colleges — the folks who get the two-year degree — are very low. They’re low throughout the country and have been low for a very long time. And there are a number of issues involved in that. A lot of students are part time, a lot of students are working full time and returning students, and there’s all sorts of life issues and other things that could interfere with the completion of a degree there. And we need to work on that. That’s something that a lot of folks are pushing to improve, and it’s something that we need to spend a lot more time and energy on. The other issue is successfully making the transfer from a community college to a senior college to continue on to get the four-year degree. And a problem there is that the process of selecting a four-year college that’s going to be appropriate for you, that’s going to be accessible for you, figuring out how to navigate that — all of that is difficult. And then there are other problems which this program is designed to address, such as the question of whether your credits are going to transfer. One of the things that Obama has said is that a pre-requisite for colleges participating in this program will be to have a really robust and vigorous credit-transfer policy. There are downsides to that, as with everything, but that’s a really important part of what he’s suggesting.

WBAI: And how does that work at CUNY, from where you sit? Do you see your students going on to the CUNY senior colleges, places like Brooklyn College and where I’m sitting today, City College?

AJ: Yes, a lot of them do, and in fact a lot of them go on to more selective private and public colleges as well. One of the things about the community college, and I see this every semester, is that the range of students, the variety of students, is so incredible, because you’ve got students who are there for all sorts of different reasons. Some of them are immigrants and have not built up a track record in the American educational system. Some of them are folks who have tried college in the past and not done so well. Some of them are folks who have never had the opportunity to go to college before, and so either in youth or later on in life they’re giving it a crack. And so some of the strongest students that I have ever taught in my life, and I’ve taught throughout the CUNY system, have been students that I’ve had at Hostos.

WBAI: So I wonder. One of the criticisms floating around about this plan is that it gives a subsidy, more or less, to more middle-class students, right? That the poorest students who are going into community college programs are already eligible for federal Pell Grants, and that the level of Pell Grants is already more than most of the in-state tuition costs for students going to community colleges. I wonder what your reaction is to that, as an advocate for free, fair higher education for everyone? What do you think about the idea that this program might actually be subsidizing people who need it less?

AJ: I think there are two issues there. The first is that I’ve got a lot of students who don’t have a lot of money who would be shocked to hear the description of financial aid as being incredibly cushy and satisfying for everybody. And certainly there are gaps in the Obama proposal as well. If it only covers tuition, or only covers tuition and fees, that’s not sufficient. There’s a scholar named Sara Goldrick-Rab out of Wisconsin who has presented a similar proposal which goes well beyond tuition and fees, and I think we should push this in that direction. So the first thing is that I would take issue with the premise. The second thing is — and this is a more profound question — I believe that education should be free. I believe that the role of the public educational system is to provide an education to anybody who can benefit from it. And if we’re talking about SUNY Binghamton or we’re talking about Berkeley, well okay, we can have that discussion on another day and reasonsable people may disagree. But if we’re talking about a place like Hostos Community College, the idea that we are swimming in all of these upper middle class students is just kind of silly. And another thing that’s really really important is the whole question of sticker shock, which refers to the idea that when students see what the listed tuition rate is, they may be scared off. If students know that Hostos is free, if students know that any of the CUNY or SUNY community colleges are free, they will be much much more inclined to go. And the students who will be more inclined to go are going to be the students who know least about navigating the system.

WBAI: Right.

AJ: Whatever their economic background is, they’re the students who most need help getting into the system. And frankly, K through 12 education is free to everyone including the wealthiest among us, and we’ve survived as a country having made that decision.

WBAI: Right. I saw a funny tweet this weekend that said something like, “Those first twelve years of education, that’s America, but public education beyond that in the thirteenth year, that’s socialism.”

AJ: Exactly. And somebody — I think I retweeted that one, and somebody responded saying that with the rise of the charter school movement, more and more people are saying that those first thirteen years are socialism as well.

WBAI: Right.

AJ: And I think that’s a legitimate point too.

WBAI: So the questions that this program opens vis a vis the privatization of higher education and what the Obama administration’s stance has been towards for-profit higher education is a discussion for another day, and we’d love to have you back sometime to talk about that. But very briefly, in our last thirty seconds or so, I wonder, as a historian of student activism — we’ve seen many movements, particularly here in CUNY, for the idea of free higher education. Do you see the proposal as pushing this forward, pushing this further, particularly from the student side?

AJ: Well, I’ve been working with students who have been pushing for free higher education in the United States for a very long time now, and the first thing that always gets said to them is that it’s preposterous, it’s unrealistic, it’s a fantasy. Well now we’ve got the President of the United States saying it’s not a fantasy, and I think that one of the things that we’re going to see out of this is a huge new invigoration of the student-led grassroots movement for free public higher education at the community college level and beyond. I think it’s going to be a very exciting spring as far as student organizing goes.

WBAI: Well, that is definitely exciting news, exciting prospects. We have been speaking to Angus Johnston. He is a professor of History at Hostos Community College, and runs the website studentactivism.net. Thanks so much for being with us this morning, Angus.

AJ: Thank you.