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At a speech tomorrow in Tennessee, President Obama will announce the most momentous higher education proposal of his presidency — free community college for every American.

Obama teased the proposal in an Air Force One video shot this evening, and the specifics have been released on the White House website. The plan is sweeping in its scope and ambition, and promises to transform debates over public higher education overnight.

Here are the details:

  • Students would be eligible to attend community college for up to two years, completely tuition free.
  • To preserve eligibility they would be required to maintain a 2.5 GPA and enroll on an at least half-time basis.
  • The federal government would allocate three-fourths “of the average cost of community college” to states participating in the program. State and local funding would make up the remainder.
  • Community colleges would be required to offer courses of study that were fully transferrable to local public four-year colleges or occupational training culminating in high graduation rates and meaningful degrees.
  • Colleges would also have to “adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.”

More on this later, or in the morning — I have to feed my kids dinner — but I have to say:

This is big. Really big.

Last night the Republican Governor of Tennessee, William E. Haslam, announced his intention to make community college free for all residents of his state. The plan, revealed in Haslam’s State of the State address and dubbed “The Tennessee Promise,” would be funded through an endowment  supported by lottery proceeds. Haslam’s proposal, if implemented, would make Tennessee the first state in the country to guarantee free community college to its residents.

Actually, I should rephrase that. Tennessee would be the only state in the country to make such a guarantee, but it wouldn’t be the first. Free higher education is almost non-existent now, but it wasn’t always. If Tennessee makes community college free, it will be a welcome return to a practice that existed for much of the 20th century in a number of states.

There are some downsides to the plan. Because it would only cover community college,  students who intended to pursue a four-year degree would only be able to take advantage of it if they began at a CC and transferred later. Studies have shown that students are more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree if they don’t have to switch colleges, and there are all sorts of less-tangible benefits to getting all of your college education in one place.

The fine print of the plan creates additional pressure for new students to choose community colleges over four-year schools, too. Under Haslam’s proposal, the state’s existing Hope Scholarship program would be cut from $4000 to $3000 a year for first- and second-year students, while Hope Scholarships for juniors and seniors would be raised to $5000 a year.

The model of community college as a component of the standard path to a four-year degree is one that I have qualms with as a matter of big-picture higher ed policy, and in that sense the Tennessee Promise isn’t quite everything it might be. But that’s a quibble, really. This is excellent news.

Free public higher education is a worthy goal, and it’s a policy proposal that’s beginning to get some traction in the public discourse. For a whole raft of reasons, I think free community college is an excellent place to start.

Community colleges serve a student body that is poorer, on average, than four-year colleges do, and at higher risk of leaving college without a degree. Money spent on easing access to CCs is money spent on the students who need the most support.

And as Kevin Slavin of Cooper Union wrote recently in a different context, “free” is not merely an extension of “cheap,” but an entirely different way of thinking. By taking funds that had been previously targeted toward reducing the cost of higher ed and diverting them to making an entire sector of public higher education free to all comers, Tennessee would instantly change the nature of the college funding debate not just in Nashville but across the country.

More as the story develops. I’m going to be following this one closely.

This occasional roundup of student movement stories is put together by Isabelle Nastasia, a CUNY undergrad, New York Students Rising organizer, and friend of this site. 

Featured Campus of the Day: Emory University

As American as … Compromise – Emory website (Trigger warning: this is super racist.)

Controversy Over Wagners Column – Emory Wheel

Emory President Holds Up Three-Fifth Compromise as Noble and Honorable  – Salon

Emory President Praises Three-Fifths Compromise as a “Pragmatic Solution” – Gawker

Faculty Censure Wagner, Consider Voting No Confidence – Emory Wheel

Important perspectives on education injustice:

Conservatives Declare War on College – Salon

Truth and Justice Report – Colorado Progressive Coalition

Universities Overtake Prisons in Gov. Walker’s Budget – JS Online (Maxwell Love of United Council of UW Students says “Before you start patting the Governor on the back: we lost $350 million and [UW students] get back $100 million…”)

Why Do Black and Latino Youth Struggle in School? – Colorlines

Sallie Mae Sells Interest – ZACKS

The Revolution Will Not be Televised: Deconstructing the News Briefing on Higher Ed Funding – Restructuring Public Higher Ed

Student Loans Unable to Refinanced – TIME

Free Education – McGill Daily (MOOCs are a growing part of the education crisis in Quebec as well in the U.S.)

College Students Struggle to Complete Education – The Knight News

Deferred Cooper Union Applicants Feel Like Collateral in Board’s Beef with Art School – Village Voice

Another Dark Day for Indiana’s Public Schools – Journal Gazette

Whether we are occupying buildings or writing bills,  we are students taking action!

CCSF Students Occupy Conlan Hall – Golden Gates Express (ABC Local covered this as well.)

Students, Faculty Call for Leadership Overhaul of Wilberforce – Springfield News

Speech to the University Regents – Student Union of Michigan

The New Deal for Students – USSA

Steps forward on the policy-change front:

Denver Takes Bold Step Towards Eliminating its School-to-Prison Pipeline – Colorlines

DMW releasing Drivers Licenses to Many Immigrants – WRAL (Colorlines tells us why they are still problematic for many DREAMers, here)

No Salary Increase for UC – Changing Universities

Bookstore punts Adidas Gear From Shelves – The Santa Clara

Essays on student movement-building and radical organizing strategy:

Charging Through the Archway of History: Immigrants and African Americans Unite to Transform of Labor and the Power of Community – Portside

Hidden in Plain Sight – Free University NYC (Commissioned by Tidal 4 – Occupy Theory. This piece is a collaboration between myself, Manissa McCleave Maharawal, Conor Tomas Reed and Zoltan Gluck–faculty and students at CUNY.)

Developing Militant the Lefts Minstrel Show and How College Educated Revolutionaries of All Colors Keep the Working Class Shucking and Jiving – Fire Next Time

What is a Strike?  –  IDS News

The Board of Regents of Connecticut’s state university system is meeting today to consider a $778 fee increase, and a group of students and activists are promising a system-wide walkout it the hike goes through.

In the last two years, state funding to public higher education has been slashed by more than 15 percent. Today’s planned hikes would amount to an aggregate fee hike of 11.8 percent in the same period — bringing in-state costs to nearly $9,000 a year. As recently as 2004, tuition and fees at Connecticut’s four regional universities — Central, Eastern, Southern and Western — stood at just over $5,000.

But not all students will see tuition increases if today’s proposal is approved. Facing declines in lucrative out-of-state enrollments, the Regents plan to cut out-of-state tuition for the second year in a row.

Public universities nationwide have been raising out-of-state tuition and increasing out-of-state enrollment to close budget gaps — at the University of California, out-of-state students now pay more than they would at Harvard. But only four percent of students enrolled at Connecticut’s regional state universities are out-of-staters.

In advance of today’s vote, a group called Students of Connecticut Universities for Democracy called for a system-wide walkout in the event that the increases pass. The Regents are meeting now, and supporters of the walkout are livetweeting at the hashtag #hikemeanswalk.

Check it out.

Wednesday Update | The Board of Regents delayed the vote on the proposed tuition increase until their next meeting. Their current proposal calls for a 5.5% increase for in-state students, coupled with a 2.6% cut for out-of-staters. The regents’ finance committee will consider the plan at a March 5 meeting, with the full board scheduled to take up their proposal on March 21.

The University of Puerto Rico announced that it will roll back a huge fee increase that sparked years of massive student protests throughout the island, as Puerto Rico’s new governor pledged to increase funding to the university.

This is big.

Students shut down ten of eleven UPR campuses for two months in the spring of 2010 in an effort to stop the fee hike, but university administrators later reneged on a pledge to withdraw it. Dozens of students were arrested and beaten in January 2011 as the fee went into effect, as police occupied UPR’s Rio Piedras campus for the first time in more than three decades.

The 2011 protests led to the resignation of UPR’s president, but failed to stop the hike, and the student movement went into decline after a widely publicized assault on the Rio Piedras chancellor. The UPR budget cuts, fee, and protests damaged the reputation of governor Luis Fortuño, however, and in November Fortuño was defeated for re-election by Alejandro García Padilla, a UPR graduate whose brother served as president of the university prior to Fortuño’s 2009 election.

During the campaign García Padilla pledged to roll back the $800 fee, which had raised the cost of attending UPR by as much as fifty percent. As García Padilla took office early this month UPR student leaders called on him to keep his promise, and on Saturday the university’s board of directors announced that he had promised them the funding to do just that.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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