Colleges must be wary of promised funding for free tuition

By Robert Breuder
Posted1/16/2015 1:01 AM

Most should be aware of President Obama's announcement last week regarding an initiative to offer free community college tuition to all students nationwide.

Little is known of the proposal beyond the fact that it would cover two years of education at a community college and would be a partnership between federal and state governments, paying 75 percent and 25 percent of costs, respectively.


As a community college president for nearly 35 years, I support increased access to higher education. However, it is difficult to hear even the beginnings of this proposal without focusing on the cost.

The Obama administration claims the program could save the average community college student $3,800 a year, but it is hard to feel confident in a plan that relies on any amount of state funding, given the lackluster performance by Illinois over the last decade or so.

In fact, my own prediction is that state governments will continue to move gradually away from funding public higher education, instead focusing solely on K-12.

Please note that Illinois community colleges were originally intended by to receive 33 percent of their operating revenue from the state. Statewide, we are now down to about 6 percent. At College of DuPage, with the assumption that we are going to receive only eight of 12 payments from the state in Fiscal Year 2015, state revenues would only constitute 5 percent of our Operating Funds Budget. We haven't seen 33 percent since the late 1980s.

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If President Obama's plan does pass, I believe we will have a greater influx of students, but not perhaps the landslide some would predict. This is because we are so inexpensive now that we already attract many of the students who would be interested in this plan.

This year, COD had a credit headcount enrollment of nearly 30,000 students. We and other colleges will have to create additional space to serve greater headcount. In this respect, COD is ahead of the game, already anticipating the need for classrooms for our current enrollment increases with initial plans for a new Teaching and Learning Center on the west campus.

Along with other schools in the region, College of DuPage has moved to ease the financial burden on students. This includes our recent tuition decrease for our spring semester and waiving fees at many of our admissions events.

College of DuPage also offers Presidential and other scholarships, including $1.8 million in scholarship and programmatic support from our Foundation, $1.3 million in assistance and scholarships directly from the college, and various 3+1 degree programs with six partner universities, 2+1 and guaranteed transfer programs, such as our Engineering Pathways program with the University of Illinois.


We are also spearheading the passage of legislation that enables two-year schools to offer specialized, technical baccalaureate degrees to meet local labor needs.

The next step is to wait for President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday. In the meantime, institutions must continue to demonstrate sympathy for tuition costs primarily through cost-cutting measures and increasing student market share.

Dr. Robert Breuder is president of the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.

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