School of Education News

UW’s Goldrick-Rab backer of Obama’s plan to make community college tuition free

January 09, 2015
by Todd Finkelmeyer

President Barack Obama unveiled a new proposal on Thursday to provide two years of free community college tuition to students who maintain good grades.

The plan is an effort to increase the number of Americans who hold some type of post-secondary credential, and it’s a recommendation that’s very familiar to UW-Madison’s Sara Goldrick-Rab.

“I applaud President Obama for taking bold action to address a very serious concern: Large numbers of adults across America are locked out of higher education because of the price,” says Goldrick-Rab, who has dedicated her career to examining ways to make college more accessible and affordable.

Sara Goldrick-Rab
Goldrick-Rab is a professor of educational policy studies and sociology, and is the director and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which was launched in May and is the only laboratory in the nation dedicated to translational research for improving equitable outcomes in postsecondary education. The HOPE Lab, which is an acronym for Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education -- is housed within UW-Madison’s School of Education.

“Having spent 15 years studying the lives of college students, watching them struggle against a broken system, I can confirm the need for this innovative policy,” says Goldrick-Rab. “Making community college free is a critical next step to making higher education as accessible as high school, dramatically increasing the nation's human capital and hopefully improving its economy.”

The Obama proposal, which is currently light on details and will almost certainly face an uphill battle in a Republican-dominated Congress, would make two years of community college free for students of any age with a C-plus average who attend school at least half-time. Obama says funding for the proposal would come via federal-state partnerships -- with federal dollars covering 75 percent of the tuition and participating states being expected to fund the rest. Details on the proposal’s costs and funding are expected in Obama’s State of the Union Address on Jan. 20, and in the president's budget request Feb. 2.

In February 2014, Goldrick-Rab spend time in Washington, D.C., sharing her expertise and thoughts with a range of stakeholders about approaches to making college affordable for all Americans. During her time in the nation’s capital, she met with the staff of U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and education advisors at the White House to discuss President Obama's higher education agenda.

Indeed, many of the basics in the president’s proposal are very familiar to Goldrick-Rab and UW-Madison colleague Nancy Kendall, who in April co-authored a paper titled, “Redefining College Affordability: Securing America’s Future with a Free Two-Year College Option.” In it, these faculty members with the Department of Educational Policy Studies proposed making two years of community college or public four-year college -- plus stipends and work-study jobs to cover living expenses -– free. 

To fund their proposal, Goldrick-Rab and Kendall suggested reallocating federal funds that now support students at private and for-profit colleges. That paper’s release helped spark a national debate on the topic, with the free college proposal garnering numerous media mentions.

Moving forward, Goldrick-Rab says she is hopeful that the HOPE Lab team can continue to play a key role in identifying the most effective and efficient ways to make a college education more affordable and accessible to all.

“The Wisconsin HOPE Lab, as the nation's only applied research institute aimed at identifying and evaluating ways to make college more affordable, plans to actively and thoroughly examine the outcomes of the president’s plan,” says Goldrick-Rab. “Our team of social scientists is currently in the field assessing the impacts of policies and practices at many levels, and in particular we are examining whether policies like the President's not only help students start college but also complete degrees.”

Goldrick-Rab also is a Senior Scholar at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education and an affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty, Center for Financial Security, La Follette School of Public Affairs, and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

To learn more about Goldrick-Rab’s plan and the president’s proposal, check out this report from NPR.

As the NPR report explains, President Obama’s plan has its “skeptics” and “true believers.”

“This is a fundamental systematic change,” Goldrick-Rab tells NPR. “It's bold and exactly what we need right now.”

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