ROCKVILLE – Earlier this month President Obama unveiled his plan to make the first two years of community college free, an initiative that Montgomery College President Dr. DeRionne Pollard calls “a game changer.”
“I cannot think of a reason why it should not go through and I think that even more importantly the question should be posed to our elected officials if they can’t come together to make this reality, why didn’t they do it – there’s no bad position on this at all,” Pollard said.
Obama’s proposed plan, called “America’s College Promise”, would pay tuition for a student’s first two years of community college given the students fit the criteria. According to the White House press office, the student attends at least half-time, maintains a 2.5 GPA while in college and makes steady progress toward completing their program.
Current Montgomery College students praise the idea of the proposed initiative. Elvis Armandi, 19, a clinical nursing major, referred to the plan as “a blessing.”
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity. It’s an amazing chance to give underprivileged kids a chance to become something of themselves. It could be something really great,” Armandi said. “If it passes I think you’re going to see a lot more skilled people in our economy and a more skilled economy as a whole. You’re also going to see more competition, but competition brings out the best in us.”
Karla Montesinos, 22, an early childhood development major, also said she thinks the proposition would be a good idea.
Montesinos, who takes time off from school to work and save up enough money to pay for tuition so she does not have to inherit debt, said if the plan had been offered when she was coming out of high school she would already be off at four-year college.
Montesinos said if the plan were to pass it would allow students in her situation to focus more on school and worry less about earning enough money to pay for tuition.
“Since you pay out of pocket for every semester you go to college you have to work enough to pay for that tuition, so that takes time away from school that you’re spending at work,” Montesinos said.
According to Melissa Gregory, chief of enrollment services and financial aid officer for Montgomery College, cases like Montesinos’ in which students struggle to pay for school is just one of many in a county perceived to be “affluent.”
“If we’re so affluent then we wouldn’t have almost 10,000 Pell Grant recipients enrolled at Montgomery College,” Gregory said.
Armandi said many people perceive Montgomery County to be a place where this plan would not necessarily be needed.
“I think that Montgomery County is one of those counties where a lot is hidden. Yes it’s a very beautiful place but there’s a lot more kids suffering than people think. Personally I know kids that in high school were struggling just to eat lunch. I think there’s a perception that everyone here has a great lifestyle,” Armandi said.
According to Gregory and Pollard, Montgomery College has seen a 60 percent increase in financial aid applications over the past five years and currently ranks second in the state among community colleges for the number of Pell Grant recipients.
Gregory also said because Montgomery College is a commuter school there are many other costs for students, including transportation and living expenses. Because of that Gregory said if the plan goes through Montgomery College would also see an increase in students who would not be classified as “low income.”
“We find with our students who have maybe a little higher income still have a lot of financial need and we find that if we’re able to help them with our own institutional money, the odds of them enrolling at the college are much higher if we give them some support,” Gregory said.
Gregory said the plan could also convince more students to stay and finish their associate degrees before transferring out to other schools.
Andrew Lam, 18, a freshman majoring in graphic design, said he is currently trying to transfer out to possibly Arizona State after this year but if a plan like Obama’s was in place he would stay for both years.
“That’s always the better plan – to do the first two years (of college) and then transfer out,” Lam said.
The plan would also require community colleges to offer programs that fully transferable to public four-year colleges and universities or that are occupational training programs with high graduation rates and lead to degrees and certificates that are in demand among employers. Colleges would also have to adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes, which among other things would help students pay for books and transit costs and provide academic advising and supportive scheduling programs to better meet the needs of participating students, resulting in greater gains in college persistence and degree completion.
According to Gregory and Pollard, meeting these requirements would not be hard for Montgomery College because similar legislation is already in place.
In 2013, the Maryland general assembly passed the College Readiness and Completion Act, a piece of legislation that requires more courses to be transferrable from community colleges to four year institutions. The act also ensures students are receiving better advising and requires students to submit career plans.
“At the end of the day we say education is the most important thing in this country, we say you can’t go anywhere without an education,” Armandi said. “So why restrict our under-funded youth? Give the people the option to do what others say they can’t.”