Riverland applauds Obama’s college plan

Riverland Community College and local education leaders backed plans announced last week to offer free community college classes to help train the nation’s workforce.

As President Barack Obama proposed a plan Friday to bring the cost of two years of community college “down to zero” for all Americans, Minnesota lawmakers were also discussing debt forgiveness and tuition-free classes at the state level.

ah.01.11.aObama’s plan to make two years of community or technical college “as free and universal as high school” would cost $60 billion over 10 years and is based on a popular Tennessee program signed into law by that state’s Republican governor.

Riverland Community College leaders issued a statement Saturday morning supporting the president’s proposal and welcomed assistance for students, adding that college costs are a major concern for students.

“This is a step in the right direction to meet the dire needs of local and regional employers for skilled workforce and reduce the debt load for most of our students,” the statement read. “Riverland’s mission is to inspire personal success through education, and that positions us to help make President Obama’s promise a reality.”

In Minnesota, Senate-leading Democrats and majority House Republicans are both pitching targeted student-debt forgiveness programs. The Senate DFL wants tuition-free classes at two-year colleges to incentivize technical education. The House GOP wants the industry-specific tax credits along with other tax cuts. The opening bids set up five months of deliberations over new policies and a new state budget.

District 27B Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, is glad the state and nation are showing initiative on a project to help students get out of debt.

“I think definitely we need to do something to reduce the indebtedness that we’re putting on young people and returning adults when it comes to getting technical or career training,” Poppe said.

As a state representative, Poppe doesn’t have a vote on Obama’s federal plan. However, she has been a longtime education advocate and works at Riverland Community College as a counselor. She noted it can be hard for students to prioritize school when they are working and paying bills with the knowledge of a lot of school debt in the future.

While based on a Republican governor’s plan, the $60 billion federal price tag would have to make the grade with a Republican Congress that is showing little appetite for big, new spending programs. Obama, who plans to push the issue in his Jan. 20 State of the Union address, argued that providing educational opportunity and creating a more skilled U.S. workforce shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

“Community college should be free for those willing to work for it because, in America, a quality education should not be a privilege that is reserved for a few,” he said in a speech at Pellissippi State Community College. He said a high school diploma is no longer enough for American workers to compete in the global economy and that a college degree is “the surest ticket to the middle class.”

The White House estimated that 9 million students could eventually participate and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year if they attend fulltime. Students would qualify if they attend at least halftime, maintain a 2.5 grade point average and make progress toward completing a degree or certificate program. Participating schools would have to meet certain academic requirements.

The White House said the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost and the final quarter would come from states that opt into the program — a cost of $20 billion over 10 years. Spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama will propose new programs to pay for the federal portion in his budget next month.

Poppe said Riverland would likely qualify as it is a Minnesota State College and Universities school, with the assumption that MnSCU schools would qualify.

She noted in the past there have been tuition freezes and she hopes this plan will further that line of thinking.

“Negotiations need to happen about how they’re going to spend the money we have and how best we can do that in higher education,” she said.

She pointed out that many students only need the first two years of college before they can get into the job market, and paying loans right out of college is difficult as starting wages don’t always allow students to pay back their debt in a timely manner. She said it’s time to revisit bettering students at lower costs.

“Definitely a proposal that I think we should be pursuing in the long term,” Poppe said. “I think there’s a long-term benefit to that.”

Obama is calling the idea America’s College Promise, modeled after Tennessee Promise, which Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law last year to provide free community and technical college tuition for two years. It has drawn 58,000 applicants, almost 90 percent of the state’s high school seniors. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff, has a similar program for students in his city.

“If a state with Republican leadership is doing this and a city with Democratic leadership is doing this, how about we all do it,” Obama said.

Obama brought Tennessee’s two Republican senators, Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, with him on Air Force One for the event. But both said they thought states, not the federal government, should follow Tennessee’s lead.

“Creating a federal program to me is not the way to get good things to happen in education,” Corker told reporters from his seat in the third row of the speech. “You’re always better off letting states mimic each other.”

Alexander, a former education secretary who is set to take over the Senate committee that oversees education, said Washington’s role should be to reduce paperwork for student aid applications. Obama said he agrees and wants to see that happen this year.

—The Associated Press contributed to this story

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