Would Obama’s Free College Plan Kill YSU?

By Alyssa Pawluk

Photo courtesy of Alyssa Pawluk/The Jambar.
Photo courtesy of Alyssa Pawluk/The Jambar.

On Friday Jan. 9, President Barack Obama announced a proposal that would allow anyone in the United States to attend community college tuition free.

Under the proposal, the federal government would contribute over $60 billion over a span of 10 years to students who maintain a C or higher and who will complete the two-year program or are on track to transfer to a four-year university.

A.J. Sumell, assistant professor in the department of economics at Youngstown State University, expressed his opinion on the idea of the president’s plan.

“I almost feel like it’s an idea worth considering, but it is not something that should just be implemented in a rush because of all the potential ramifications that probably still haven’t been considered even by Obama himself,” Sumell said. “As this moves forward, I’m not against the idea of trying to reduce the cost of education in general. I think that actually it is a very good idea, not for those that don’t go to college, but for those that currently do go to college. The impacts to everybody, to all the state colleges and people who would be affected, need to be considered before any policy is implemented.”

Sumell also explained that the plan would negatively affect enrollment at YSU if enacted.

“I think the effect to YSU would be based on how many people that currently don’t go to any college — whether it is community college or a four-year institution like YSU — versus how many people it would attract who don’t go to college at all, versus how many people who decided to switch from YSU to some community college because it is free,” he said. “To that extent, obviously, it wouldn’t be a positive thing for YSU when it comes to our enrollment.”

Sumell said that the intention of the policy is to motivate those who are not pursuing higher education.

“The intention of the policy is to encourage those that wouldn’t be going to school otherwise to at least get some degree. So the intent is not to essentially, have people go to community college for two years and then go to finish up their bachelor’s degree for another two years. So it is not intended to apply to all college students currently. It’s intended to apply to those don’t go to any college,” he said.

Martin Abraham, interim provost of YSU, pinpointed the positive and negative aspects of the plan in general to any community college.

“Giving free tuition, well actually in this case, having the government pay for your tuition is an interesting proposition,” Abraham said. “There are good points and bad points. The good point is that you get people who might otherwise not be able to afford to go to college, the opportunity to go to college, that’s a good thing, but you are spending significant government dollars to do that, and so the question is whether or not that is the best use of your government money.”

Abraham said that if the plan was enacted now, enrollment might decline.

“In certain areas, students are going to pay for the first two years of their YSU education because the programs are sufficiently well-defined, unique and specialized. Getting two years of community college education for free isn’t going to help a student achieve his or her objectives. There are other cases where students do not know what the objectives are necessarily so other potential students who aren’t as certain of what they want to do, who might need some time to figure it out, or who might be able to get their education, achieve what they are looking to achieve, in a two-year degree,” Abraham said. “So there are some for whom this would be beneficial. There are some for who it would not be, and for those for whom it would be beneficial, we would probably see the enrollment shift to the community college. Because we are not prepared today to respond to those students, we wouldn’t be able to address in an immediate sense those shifts in objectives. In the long term, we’ve already begun these conversations.”

Abraham concluded that YSU has to adapt to the changes of national institutions.

“We as a university have to be able to address change in the marketplace, a change in where students want to go to school, and figure out how to be successful giving the changing nature of higher education in the United States,” Abraham said.