On Jan. 20, President Obama gave his State of the Union Address, in which he declared, “We still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future.”
Obama’s plan for free community college would make education more affordable to low-income students and has garnered much attention from the media, prospective students and higher institutions of education.
It is unclear to what extent passing this plan would affect University of California (UC) schools.
“It is hard to know if this will really impact UCs because community college tuition is so low in California already that folks needing to start at community college for financial reasons are likely already doing so,” said Michal Kurlaender, an associate professor of education policy at UC Davis. “It is unlikely that this proposal will shift UC applicants to the community college, but it may do that in other states.”
According to Kurlaender, more transfer students go to California State University (CSU) schools rather than UC schools because there are more CSU transferable courses than UC transferable courses at community colleges.
Congressman John Garamendi, who previously served as a UC Regent, said he believes that implementing this plan could lead to more students taking their lower division classes at community colleges before taking their upper division classes at UC schools.
Chris Harrington, associate director of the UC, said that the UC is glad that President Obama has put a spotlight on education in community colleges, especially since one-third of UC upper-class students are transfers, and that the UC plans to take an active role in the conversation of students gaining access to higher education.
“UC President Janet Napolitano has directed UC’s Transfer Action Taskforce to review the proposal and provide feedback that UC will share with the Administration, particularly looking at how this would impact the state budget and whether it would squeeze limited resources, or, through the additional federal investment, open up funding opportunities,” Harrington said. “President Napolitano also wants to ensure that the proposal is targeting resources to the right students.”
While it is still early to know the full impact of free community college on UC schools, Harrington emphasized the importance of transfer students to the UC system, especially as transfer applications to the UC have been increasing.
“UC President Napolitano recently sent an email to 130,000 students at California community colleges who expressed interest in four-year degrees, encouraging them to consider transferring to UC and pointing them to resources that would help them stay on track to transfer,” Harrington said.
Congressman Garamendi agreed that, regardless of this new plan to lessen the cost of community college, the demand for acceptance into UC schools will remain high. However, the recent UC tuition increases, coupled with the opportunity for free education at a community college, may affect the number of UC applicants, as students may find it more affordable to complete their lower division classes at their local community college before transferring over to a UC school.
“The tuition increases will dampen the demand simply because kids can’t afford it,” Garamendi said. “They can’t burden the debt … or they don’t have the cash in their family to do it. That will, to some extent, reduce the demand for university campuses. If community colleges were free … I think there would be a switch from the lower division into the community colleges and then into the university.”
However, it remains uncertain if the bill will even be able to pass through Congress.
“[Congress and Senate] are very opposed to new governmental programs,” Garamendi said. “They want to reduce existing governmental programs. There is a significant challenge on passing this legislation, as great as it is for students … Right now we have a very conservative Congress and Senate.”
According to Garamendi, if the bill passes, college students can most likely expect to see its implementation within a year of it being passed. But regardless of the bill’s outcome, President Obama’s plan has made improving access to education an important national goal.
“To address the severe skills gap California faces and improve college attainment overall, we are going to need to do a lot more to keep students in college and finishing their degrees,” Kurlaender said.