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Higher Ed

More details of Obama community college plan expected in SOTU

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Earlier this month, President Obama said he wants to give all students, regardless of income, two free years of community college.

“Right here, right now, I’m going to announce one of my most important State of the Union proposals,” he said in a speech at Pellissippi State Community College on January 9, “And that’s helping every American afford a higher education.”

The plan caused a stir, even though it was a little short on the details. More information is expected in Obama’s State of the Union address. It’s exciting news for students like Justin Riley at SUNY Broome Community College. Riley is in his third year, working on a computer technology degree.

“It would help me a lot,” Riley says. “I don’t get tuition reimbursement from my job until I’ve been there a year, and I’ve only been there 6 months. So these six months are kind of a hiatus. I’m on my own.”

In fact, Riley is headed to the college administration office, where he’s about to make a big payment.

“My tuition is all messed up,” he says. “I’m relying on state aid at the moment, and today I’ll actually have to spend $600 or else I’ll be disenrolled.”   

With Obama’s $60 billion plan, students like Riley would get a break.

But Tompkins Cortland Community College Vice President John Conners says in New York, all this talk about covering tuition is actually a little misplaced.

“If the state government would support community colleges through operational aid more extensively, we wouldn’t be relying on tuition so heavily as we are,” Conners says.

New York law says no more than a third of a community college’s budget should come from tuition. The state is supposed to cover 30-40 percent, with the rest from local sources. But Conners says right now, half of TC3’s budget comes from students.

“I’ve been here now over 20 years, and the state just simply has not met its percentage obligation to us,” he says.

Over the past ten years, tuition has consistently averaged about 40 percent of SUNY two-year schools’ budgets. And Conners says that means a higher price tag for students. New York’s average community college tuition is the sixth highest in the country, according to the College Board.

SUNY Broome President Kevin Drumm says those high tuition costs undermine the whole point of community college.

“The number one barrier to attending college or completing college is finances,” he says.

Every year, SUNY asks the state for a certain amount of money toward its 2-year schools. Drumm says for the past five years, the state hasn’t met the full request. He hopes 2015 will be different. But Board of Regents member Jim Tallon says he wouldn’t count on it.

“We live in a real world of getting budgets done,” Tallon says.

Tallon points out that the funding formula was written decades ago. He says with all the state’s other expenses, it isn’t always practical.

“Remember just in the state budget we spend $120-130 billion dollars a year across all sources in New York, and there are myriad questions inside of how that money is allocated,” he says.

New York’s neediest students already get help from the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP. Students who qualify can get up to $5,000, which would cover tuition at most community colleges.

But that doesn’t help everyone. Justin Riley at SUNY Broome gets some money from TAP, but it’s not enough to cover his whole tuition.

And, he says, going to college is expensive in other ways. Like driving from his house to campus. With the money he just put down in the administration office, he could have bought about 250 gallons of gas.

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