Suburban community colleges applaud Obama plan if money's there

 
 
Posted1/10/2015 7:30 AM
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  • College of DuPage President Robert Breuder agrees with the precept behind President Obama's proposal. "Do I think two years of college education should be available to everyone? Absolutely," Breuder says.

    College of DuPage President Robert Breuder agrees with the precept behind President Obama's proposal. "Do I think two years of college education should be available to everyone? Absolutely," Breuder says.

Suburban educators hailed President Obama's plan to make community college as "free and universal as high school is today," but they acknowledged the proposal faces a tough sell with Illinois lawmakers who would have to loosen the state's purse strings to join.

White House officials say as many as 9 million students could attend two years of community college for free if all states got onboard. A full-time student could save an average of $3,800 a year.

"That's a hard program not to like," Harper College President Ken Ender said Friday. "I think the devil in all these things are in the details, and a huge detail here is the financing of a program like this."

Obama has to persuade a Republican-led Congress to spend an estimated $60 billion over a decade to cover three-quarters of the program's cost. The president is expected to announce how he would fund the federal share when he unveils his budget next month.

"The Congress does not have a good track record in terms of supporting new and innovative programs like this," Illinois Community College Board Executive Director Karen Hunter Anderson said.

And even if Congress agrees, participating states would have to cover the rest of the cost, a challenge in Illinois, which already faces a massive budget shortfall.

"Do I think two years of college education should be available to everyone? Absolutely," College of DuPage President Robert Breuder said. "Whether the money can follow the good idea, that's yet another issue."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, said he'll be an early supporter of the proposal because students increasingly need more education to land jobs.

"Community college is not an extra," Durbin said.

He said Illinois officials should try to find the money either in existing programs that hand out scholarships or in other areas. He said that Tennessee, for example, pays for a similar plan with lottery proceeds. Since Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed the so-called Tennessee Promise into law last year, 58,000 people have applied -- nearly 90 percent of the state's high school seniors. City Colleges of Chicago has a similar program.

Because Obama traveled to Tennessee Friday with the two Republican senators from the state to see the program in action, Durbin expects Obama's push to be a "very serious undertaking," rather than dismissed as a partisan proposal.

Part-time and full-time students would be eligible if they maintain at least a 2.5 grade-point average (equivalent to a C+) and stay on track toward earning a degree or skills certificate. Colleges would have to increase the number of graduating students, among other benchmarks.

"The thing I like most about this program is that it seems like students have to earn it," Ender said. "It's not a giveaway."

Suburban administrators applauded Obama's plan as a way to address soaring student debt and turn around enrollment declines. Ender said the proposal would make community college more attractive to students from lower-middle-class families who don't qualify for federal Pell grants.

At Harper, a total of 1,488 students took out a student loan in 2013-14, down from 2,452 in 2010-11.

Other community college presidents say expanding access to community colleges will better prepare students for careers in highly technical -- and lucrative -- fields.

"We like President Obama's proposal because it shows an understanding that higher education is a key driver for a strong workforce and innovation," College of Lake County President Jerry Weber said.

Community college enrollments could rise dramatically in the suburbs.

"If President Obama's proposal was approved, I would expect to see an increase in working adults coming to community colleges as well as traditional-aged students who are looking for a quality education without going into debt," said David Sam, Elgin Community College's president.

At Oakton Community College, President Margaret Lee said the Des Plaines-based school is up to the task of accommodating what could be a surge of new students, anticipating "a couple of thousand if all worked out according to the ideal script."

But she noted state lawmakers have historically cut, not ramped up, aid for Illinois' 39 community college districts. Under the state's original funding formula, it was to bankroll a third of a community college's per capita costs.

Oakton now gets 5.1 percent of its operating budget from the state.

"I'm going to be very optimistic and say even if it doesn't play itself out as the best possible scenario, which would be the students could come the first two years without cost, I think it may make a dent in people's understanding that education is critical in the development of the economy," Lee said.

• Daily Herald news services and staff writers Bob Susnjara, Erin Hegarty, Madhu Krishnamurthy, Mike Riopell and Safiya Merchant contributed to this report.

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