Jan 13, 2015

NWC president ‘really hopeful’ about Obama's free community college proposal

In this Jan. 9 photo, President Barack Obama listens to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., aboard Air Force One en route to Knoxville, Tenn., where the president proposed making community college tuition free. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is second from left. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama’s proposal to offer two years free tuition at community colleges was welcomed by Northwest College President Stefani Hicswa, albeit with a note of caution.

“I’m really hopeful. At this point it is hard for me to provide a thorough response/educated opinion, as there are so many unknown details — like how will the proposal be funded,” Hicswa said. “Philosophically, I am always excited about proposals to decrease financial barriers for education. It just depends on how it is all implemented.”

She discussed how other nations are now offering free higher education to citizens and, in the case of Norway, anyone who wants to study online. Nations realize they must have a well-educated population and workforce, Hicswa said.

“That’s my cocktail party speech. That’s my elevator speech,” she said. “The United States keeps falling behind in education. We’ve got to keep looking at initiatives to aid education.”

However, she noted that Wyoming “has done a great job to provide affordable higher educational opportunities in our state” and offers one of the lowest tuition rates in the nation.

“The United States keeps falling behind in education. We’ve got to keep looking at initiatives to aid education,” Hicswa said.

The Hathaway scholarship program demonstrates the governor’s and Legislature’s commitment to higher education. The program, which started in 2006, provides scholarships for Wyoming students to attend Wyoming community colleges and the University of Wyoming for up to four years. The program provides three tiers of scholarships, based on student achievement in high school.

Northwest College President Stefani Hicswa
“Through a multitude of financial aid and assistance programs, most students find NWC to be very affordable,” Hicswa said.

She also offered a historical perspective on the creation of community colleges.

“In 1947, the Truman Commission called for establishing a network of public community colleges that would extend free public education through the 13th and 14th grades,” the NWC president said. “It evolved to community colleges charging little or no tuition, a concept which the state of California adhered to until recently. For years, the California community college system charged $5 per credit.”

Obama announced the proposal in Knoxville, Tenn., Friday, saying the federal and state governments would need to invest $60 billion over 10 years to pay for it. The federal government would pay 75 percent and participating states the remaining 25 percent, Obama said, and all Americans, not just recent high school graduates, are eligible to take part in it. He said a high school diploma is no longer enough for American workers to compete in the global economy and that a college degree is “the surest ticket to the middle class.”

Republican lawmakers were cool to the idea.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who flew to Knoxville with the president along with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he wasn’t sure Obama’s plan is the best way to educate more Americans.

“You’re always better off letting states mimic each other,” he said before the president spoke.

Alexander wrote an opinion piece, which was published before the speech, saying states should handle the program.

Obama’s proposal is based in part on community college programs started in Tennessee and Chicago.

On Friday afternoon, Hicswa said she was waiting to see how the political sands shift.

“I hate to get too excited,” she said. “This is just an idea at this point. It may never come to fruition, as is being said today.”

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