NC leaders embrace free tuition idea but question cost, capacity
Posted January 9, 2015
Alexa Price and Joseph Machado, who are first-year students at Wake Technical Community College, are among the 9 million students nationwide who would qualify for free tuition under a proposal unveiled Friday by President Barack Obama.
“Basically, I just need money, so this plan would just work,” Price said.
The proposal would help students who intend to transfer to four-year schools to complete their degrees or those who want to work in high-demand programs such as information technology or nursing.
Congress would have to approve spending for the plan, which Obama said would cost $60 billion over 10 years.
Machado also hopes the idea materializes.
“It would definitely be good, and I’m pretty sure my father would like it since he’s paying,” he said.
Scott Ralls, president of North Carolina Community College System, which includes 58 schools serving about 850,000 students each year, said the focus on moving students to bachelor’s degrees or in-demand fields are already top priorities in the state.
“The area’s he’s focused on happen to be the sweet spots for us, so we’ll be very intrigued to see how those details fit with where we are in North Carolina,” he said.
But hundreds of thousands of new students statewide could strain the system's capacity.
“We have waiting lists for waiting lists in some places,” Ralls said.
Wake Tech is one of those places. It's more than doubled in size in the past decade, and it's in the middle of another big expansion.
Wake Tech President Stephen Scott says 25 percent of programs have wait lists.
“I like the basic idea of the proposal,” he said. “The question becomes, for us, is how do we get the resources to provide the technical equipment that’s going to be necessary to do this?”
The federal government would cover three-quarters of the tuition cost. The state would have to cover the rest. Other resources, including buildings, materials and added teachers, would probably require more state investment.
“That’s where we’ll have to look,” Ralls said. “I’m sure I, as well as other state leaders, will be wanting to look closely at those details.”
Ralls said a big challenge will be teacher pay. North Carolina’s community college teachers are the lowest-paid in the Southeast, which makes recruitment and retention difficult.
Gov. Pat McCrory also weighed in Friday on the president’s plan, saying his administration has already put an emphasis on working with community colleges and closing the skills gap.
“We look forward to reviewing any proposals that help achieve this goal,” he said. “However, one thing we’ve learned in working with government is nothing is for free.”
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said he'd prefer the federal government use the money needed for the president's plan to shore up Pell Grant finances to help needy students.
“Pell Grants provide students with maximum choice in post-secondary options from all sectors of higher education, including community colleges," he said in a statement. "This new proposal from the Obama Administration favors one sector of higher education over others when, as we all know, there are so many other options available that might best suit a student’s needs.”