A Response to President Obama's New Higher Education Initiative

Robert G. Duffett, President
Eastern University
St. Davids, Pennsylvania
January 23, 2015

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama laid out a new higher education initiative – free community college education for two years for all Americans. Like public K-12 education, the cost to the student will be zero!

Many details have yet to be worked out. Initial reports suggest the federal government would pay 75% of the cost, with the states covering the remaining 25%. The total dollar amount could be as high as $60 billion over 10 years.

The goals are simple and compelling:

  1. Almost 40% of America's college students attend community colleges.
  2. Surprising to some, America is falling behind peer countries in both two-year and four-year college degree attainment.
  3. Most jobs of the future will require post-secondary education.
  4. The cost of higher education hinders many from beginning or completing a college degree.
  5. Possession of a college degree substantially increases one's lifetime earnings.

Some think this initiative will transform society much like Pell Grants have done for individuals from economically challenged families, or as the G.I. Bill did for the “greatest generation” returning from World War II.

I applaud President Obama for his vision and this initiative. However, what if there currently exists a better way; one that is tried, true and familiar to all in American higher education and has a successful history of clearly identifying those students with the greatest financial need? The Federal government already has such a program in place, namely the Pell Grant program. Could it be that a substantial increase to the present program might better achieve the president’s vision?

Pell Grants are financial aid grants funded by the federal government and given to qualified students to attend the college of their choice, whether it be a private college, public university, or community college. “Qualified students” is an important term. Applicants are “means tested” in that all recipients must apply through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and meet certain financial criteria in order to qualify. This program was named after long serving Rhode Island United States Senator, Claiborne Pell, who was a benefactor of the G.I. Bill. He was impressed by what the G.I. Bill did for himself, other individuals and American society. He sought to establish a grant program similar to the G.I. Bill, yet one that targeted students from lower income families who possessed the academic talent to attend college but lacked the financial means to pay for it. Since the early 1970s, millions attended college partially paid for by Pell Grants. Today, students with Pell Grants attend virtually every accredited college, university and community college in America. Last year, according to data sets from the U.S. Department of Education, over 9 million college students received a Pell Grant averaging about $3,700 per student.

Consider this possibility. If 10% or $6 billion from the President's new initiative (one year’s outlay of $60 billion proposed decade cost) was directed to the Federal Pell Grant program and distributed equally to only first year students (approximately 1.4 million), the average award would increase to approximately $8000, representing over twice what was awarded last year per student (using last year's average award as base and including new money). This increase would make a substantial difference in year to year persistence and thus degree attainment. Additionally, students would have a wider choice of higher education options. All sectors, not just one sector of American higher education, could rally toward the president’s higher education objectives.

The lesson of history from the G.I. Bill of the 1940s and the Federal Pell Grant program today is this: when the federal government determines the criteria and permits the student to choose which college, major and occupation is best for them, American society and the individual will equally flourish.

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