Pamela Propeck works on an assignment at the Advanced Manufacturing Training & Education Center at Everett Community College on June 3, 2020. (Kevin Clark / The Herald file photo)

Pamela Propeck works on an assignment at the Advanced Manufacturing Training & Education Center at Everett Community College on June 3, 2020. (Kevin Clark / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Students, economy need boost of free college

EvCC canceled students’ debt, showing what free community college can deliver to students and employers.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Students at Everett Community College — 3,342 of them — received a welcomed email recently, informing them that their student debt, owed for tuition and fees during the covid-19 pandemic from spring quarter 2020 through summer quarter 2021, had been wiped clean.

A total of $1.2 million — federal money from the American Rescue Plan’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund — was applied to student accounts earlier this month, at the encouragement of the U.S. Department of Education. Students were then notified by email.

“There were a lot of thank-you’s and I-can’t-believe-it’s,”EvCC President Dr. Daria Willis said earlier this week during an interview.

Along with some financial literacy resources and further opportunities for up to $2,500 in federal grants for the current fall quarter for tuition, housing and other educational expenses, the assistance will ease the path for students and keep their educations moving forward.

The pandemic had cast doubt on the college and career futures for many. The one-time windfall for students certainly eases that burden, but it also shows the potential for a longer-term — and hopefully permanent — fix: free community college.

Student debt at EvCC had more than doubled during the first year of the pandemic, according to the college’s Financial Services office. Along with adding to each student’s financial strain and the prospects for years of being saddled with debt, there’s always concern that debt factors into some students’ decision to suspend or give up their studies, preventing them from attaining goals for further education and careers.

The pandemic has hit Everett and other community colleges hard, even more so than other state and private four-year colleges. While overall higher education enrollment nationwide declined about 3.5 percent between spring 2020 and spring 2021, the nation’s community colleges saw about 476,000 fewer enrollments over the same period, a drop of 9.5 percent; 65 percent of overall higher education enrollment losses occurred in the community college sector, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

And those enrollment losses — especially at the community college level — are a blow for more than the students; they are a setback for the economy of each community and state and the nation at large.

Alarmed by the growing gap between good-paying job openings and employees with the education and training necessary to fill them, the Washington Roundtable, an advocacy group representing the state’s largest employers — set a goal in 2016 that by 2030, 70 percent of Washington residents would complete a post-high school credential, such as a college degree, an apprenticeship or other career certificate by age 26.

A Roundtable report released earlier this year, found that just 41 percent of the state’s high school class of 2017 had earned a degree or other credential by 26. Achievement was even lower for some racial and lower-income groups; 31 percent for Black students, 30 percent for Latinx students, 18 percent for Indigenous students and 26 percent for students from lower-income families.

While the state’s higher education institutions — and the state itself — have stepped up commitments to increase enrollment and the rate of credential competition, the report found the pandemic has been a drag on that goal and has magnified educational disparities and threatened progress toward the 70 percent credential goal.

One potentially enormous boost for enrollment and credential completion at the community college level would be the elimination of tuition and related fees, as proposed by the Biden administration in its “human infrastructure” plans, a version of which is now being discussed by Democrats in Congress as part of a proposed $3.5 trillion spending package.

While details are being negotiated, the plan would provide federal funds to the states and would resemble scholarship programs, covering tuition and fees above other financial aid grants that students have already qualified for. The federal government would pay 100 percent of the program in its first year, which the states picking up 5 percent of the costs in the second year and stepping up in 5 percent increments in following years.

If there are drawbacks in the current proposals, from the perspective of EvCC’s Willis, it’s that the current plans are only for five years, and that states can decline to participate, much as a dozen states have declined to participate in the expansion of Medicaid. Biden’s original proposal outlined funding for at least 10 years of tuition-free community college.

Committing only five years to the program, Willis said, offers little certainty; for students or colleges.

“With our election cycles and the possibility for change every four years, there’s the chance of being shut out of access to millions of dollars,” Willis said. “What’s going to keep that program alive?”

Yet with no Republican support in either the House and Senate and even some dissent among Democrats there isn’t much certainty for the overall “human infrastructure” package itself, which in addition to the community college proposals includes funding for initiatives on climate change and green energy, continuation of expanded child tax credits, day care, expanded coverage for the Affordable Care Act and other priorities.

As with much of the bankrolling in “human infrastructure,” tuition-free community college offers an impressive return on investment.

The success of free community college already has been proved, particularly among a handful of states — the red state of Tennessee included — that have provided free tuition at community colleges already. In those states, eliminating the barrier of tuition, according to a study by the Federal Trade Commission, increased enrollment by 26 percent, and degree completion by 20 percent.

Targeting this aid for community colleges, as well as related apprenticeship and other certificate programs — rather than four-year public and private schools — also assures that the assistance goes to families and communities most in need and will increase degrees not just in two-year transfers to four-year schools, but completion of certificates and advancement to careers now begging for trained employees.

Those programs are up and running already. Everett Community College and Edmonds College, for example, offer scores of certificate and technology programs in fields including data analytics and information technology, aerospace, manufacturing, building trades, nursing and other medical fields, professional development and more, careers that pay well and are in demand in Snohomish County and throughout the state.

At the same time that students were getting word on their canceled debt, Everett Community College broke ground on its 65,000 square-foot Cascade Learning Resource Center, across Broadway from the college’s main campus and adjacent to Washington State University Everett. The building will be home to the college’s library as well as a tutoring center, writing center, instructional media services and the college’s Center for Transformative Teaching.

The new library, which is expected to open in April 2023, is the latest example of growth at the college, not just in buildings and facilities but in opportunities for students and the larger community.

Willis said the college is ready for the growth in enrollment that can be expected if community college is made tuition-free.

“We can handle it,” she said.

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