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BLOG POST: Thinking About Free Community College, Take 2

Just shy of two weeks ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo caused a hypothetical question I wrote on several blog posts ago to become lot more real by proposing free college for New Yorkers.

Admittedly, I have some longstanding feelings about this possibility; my earlier post falls down on the side of college education being a public good. Since January 3, I've appreciated the opportunity to read and hear what others think about this proposal. As always, opposing viewpoints cause me to reflect upon and challenge my own opinions while similar viewpoints help me nuance them.

Only one opposing viewpoint, however, has made me cringe every time and has not impacted my viewpoint at all. I've read and heard it several times. It's the "students need skin in the game" sort of comment.

Remember, I'm a community college person. So here's two things I know about my professional world.

First, all research points to students taking 15 credits a semester (that's full time, meaning a community college student completes a 2 year degree in 2 years) contributes mightily to students successfully completing their courses and successfully completing their degrees. This is one of Complete College America's greatest areas of research, interest, and advocacy.

Governor Cuomo's proposal for free college only applies to those students attending full time.

The second thing I know is that community college students work....they work a lot. At SUNY Orange, about 33% of our students work at least 20 hours a week and most of the rest work at least some as they pursue their studies. But we also know community college students don't complete "on time" (the vast majority taking more than 2 years to complete a 2 year degree) and far too many stop out, usually citing something that is somehow tied to money as the reason. Community colleges are often criticized for having so many non-completers or students who take additional time to complete.

Could it be that otherwise capable students have too much skin in the game?

Because they are attempting to earn to pay for school, to contribute to their families, to cover the costs of transportation to get to school (and work), and on and on...for some, might that not be the reason they can't take 15 credits a semester?

SUNY Orange is growing in number of part-time students and shrinking in proportion of full-time students. While our access mission is imperative and we'll never, ever, diminish our services to part-time students, we know that every part-time registrant has possibly decreased their chances of achieving a degree.

Many decision-makers (and count me among them ) had a relatively privileged path through higher education. Thanks to finding my life's calling in the community college, I know that the majority of American students in higher education didn't have a path like mine. Governor Cuomo's proposal needs to be heard out, detailed, and massaged. But most of all, it needs to lay upon the reality of who really attends college, or who wants to attend, in New York and and our nation.

Dr. Kristine Young
Office of the President