Local leaders respond to President Obama’s free community college plan

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FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — With employers needing more highly skilled workers, President Barack Obama’s push for two years of free community college education can be seen as part of a trend toward seeing public education as a K-14 concept, said Gary Green, president of Forsyth Technical Community College, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Obama picked Tennessee to make his announcement of the proposal, which would have the federal government pay 75 percent of the tuition cost for the first two years of community college, with the state’s picking up the balance.

Tennessee already has a two-year free tuition program in place that drew 58,000 applicants – about 90 percent of the state’s high school graduating class – in its first year of operation.

Green said that the Tennessee program is one that many community college leaders are looking at, and said he is eager to learn more details about the President’s proposal.

“I think it provides a tremendous opportunity for us to not only help individuals with the skills they need today, which are greater than they have ever been in the workplace, but to also support economic development and competitive business in the area,” Green said. “Expanding the idea of free public education to K-14 is a different way of thinking. There are places that are looking at what Tennessee has done and what kind of benefits it might bring.”

But with state finances pinched, N.C. Rep. Donny Lambeth said, the Obama proposal probably won’t “have a chance to fly in North Carolina.” Lambeth, a Republican who represents part of Forsyth County in the N.C. House, said that he worries that other community college needs might get shorted if the state diverted money to pay for part of the President’s tuition program.

“We do need to look at the community college system and the formula for funding,” said Lambeth, who served on the N.C. House’s Education Committee last year. “We do need to look at the whole structure. I do agree that we need to get people retrained and re-skilled. My concern is that there is precious little new money in North Carolina until we get our arms around some of the out-of-control costs like Medicaid. Right now things are tight and the ability to create funds for new purposes is pretty restricted.”

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican who is North Carolina’s newest senator, issued a statement that voiced support for hearing more about Obama’s plan.

“As someone who has attended community college, I know it is a great value in advancing the education and careers of millions of Americans, and I strongly support working on solutions to make college more affordable,” Tillis said. “I look forward to learning more about the President’s proposal, including his plan for funding the program.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-5th, called increasing the number of students who have access to higher education a priority, but called Obama’s plan “the wrong approach for the federal government to take.”

“I’m reminded of the old Peanuts cartoon where Linus says to Lucy, ‘Every time there’s a good suggestion, someone brings up the budget,’” Foxx said in a statement. “President Obama has a bad habit of creating programs without identifying a way to pay for them, and the price tag for this initiative, which is bound to be incredibly expensive, has yet to even be revealed.”

Foxx is chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Higher Education within the House Education and the Workforce Committee. She is also the former president of Mayland Community College in Spruce Pine.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., says there’s a better use for the money.

“If the President has found the billions of dollars in new money that would be required for this latest idea, I’d prefer we use it to shore up Pell Grant’s finances so that assistance is available for years to come for North Carolina’s neediest students,” Burr said in a statement.

Burr said Pell Grants give students the maximum amount of choice in all sectors of higher education, and that the Obama proposal favors one type of higher education when other options might be better for some students. Burr said two pieces of legislation that he and other senators introduced earlier this week can make sure that “existing promises to college students are kept.”

One bill, called the Repay Act, would consolidate student loan programs into two plans – a fixed-payment plan based on a 10-year payback, and an income-driven plan.

The other bill, called the FAST Act, would simplify the process of applying for financial aid.

U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-12th, said in a statement that she applauded Obama’s proposal.

“Program like the President’s proposal would address the great need of work force development and the high unemployment rate that exists in my congressional district,” she said.

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