February 17, 2018

America’s College Promise: Potential Impacts for Community College Librarians | Opinion

LJms2014LandingKaufmanLast week, President Obama announced his proposal for America’s College Promise, an initiative aimed at making community college free for all students who maintain a grade point average of 2.5 and make steady progress toward completion. The proposal also requires community colleges to offer academic programs that would transfer fully to public colleges and universities or provide occupational training in areas of high demand by employers.

The spirit of Obama’s proposal is exciting for community colleges. It would give students who struggle to fund their education an opportunity to complete their first two years of college with no financial obligation for tuition. As community college librarians know, many of our students are already wracked with external pressures that put a strain on their ability to succeed. Removing the burden of tuition could be a huge step toward successful completion.

The potential outcomes of the proposed program are purely conjecture at this point, since what was proposed and what may actually get implemented could be vastly different. There are, however, some challenges and opportunities that can be foreseen if the essence of the proposal remains intact.

  • There will likely be an increase in the number of students who might otherwise have chosen a four-year institution.
    Traditional students who had never considered community college as an option before may be knocking down our doors. Parents, eager to find a more affordable route to fund their child’s postsecondary education, may require community college from the outset. In terms of library impact, this could mean we need to be prepared for even more students who come directly from high school, with all the challenges and opportunities that are part of that reality. There may be additional pressure on librarians to provide the technology students are accustomed to in their high school environment, particularly those who come from a wealthy K–12 district. Although advocating for sparse resources is something librarians are used to doing, it may become more challenging as all other areas of the college experience increased pressure to provide for these students as well.
  • We may see a dramatic increase in the number of students who struggle financially.
    Although community college librarians are familiar with serving students who struggle to afford college, this program has the potential to bring even more students to the library who are grappling with providing for their own basic needs. As we know, some of our current students already have trouble finding money to eat on a daily basis or maintain a permanent residence. Just as our K–12 colleagues routinely see, it is difficult for students to succeed if they haven’t had a proper meal in days or don’t know where they will sleep that night. So, what is the role of the library if we see an increase in the number of our students who have these difficulties? If the campus as a whole looks at this issue, the library should certainly be at the table, ready to discuss how to be part of the solution. It would also be wise for community college librarians to open a dialog with their public library counterparts to discuss strategies they have employed to assist these users.
  • Occupational programs could become more popular, which would require libraries to be even more nimble with resources and services.
    The president’s proposal also includes an award program called the American Technical Training Fund, which is intended to strengthen ties between employers and community colleges to create programs that will directly link students with jobs in sectors such as IT, energy, and advanced manufacturing. Campuses that receive this funding will need to be able to adapt quickly to employers’ needs for skilled workers. Accelerated training and courses scheduled at convenient times for part-time students are just two of the objectives of this initiative. Assuming the training fund is implemented this way, librarians will be asked to be even more adaptable in terms of the services we provide to the students in the occupational programs than we are already. We may be asked to extend our hours of service to support students in classes that are offered at nontraditional times, possibly provide library instruction in new or different ways, and quickly gain access to resources students need in emerging training programs. Again, while community college librarians are not strangers to the flexibility required in our current environment, we should expect it to be at a heightened level if the American Technical Training Fund gets implemented in some form.

Even though it remains to be seen whether the president’s proposal will be implemented, and, if so, how, one thing is fairly certain: community college librarians and administrators will have to become exceedingly adept at negotiating and advocating for resources to serve this potential new crop of students. While formal coursework in advocacy may not be in the cards for most of us, conference and/or workshops on the topic should be seriously considered, particularly as we are already in need of such training. Our libraries could only stand to benefit from such an investment, with or without America’s College Promise.


Cathryne Kaufman, a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker, is Library Services Director, Illinois Central College, East Peoria. Views expressed in this piece are her own and not the college’s. 


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  1. Seriously! Most low income kids, receive “free” community college anyway. I have two young people (friends) attending our local community college and because of their low income are receiving “free” education… and with some grants it is more than the actual education costs, so the student keeps what is left.

    • I perceived his community college remark as a chance for those baby boomers who are losing their positions due to down sizing. Employers are no longer willing to pay for their retirement as well as their salary which they probably could pay someone cheaper who just graduated. Also their position may no longer be in need of that company. A “free” education enables them to take classes for a more updated position, while not worrying about using money from their savings while they are laid off. However, you do have a valid point. At this point in time details have not been released about any stipulations if there are any.

  2. I understand completely the motivation behind this, but I don’t really think it’s going to improve anything. The issue is not really access to college – let’s face it, with federal student loans everyone has access these days. It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario in which you cannot get those loans, as you can get federal loans even after a bankruptcy or with poor credit.

    The issue is the student loan balance after you graduate, and let’s face it – this isn’t going to solve that issue. People with 2 years of community college are not the ones with massive student loan debt. It’s the students who have $75k, $100k, $200k loans we should be worrying about. They are the ones who will likely never escape that debt, and the ones who are creating the student loan “bubble” everyone is so worried about. This proposal isn’t going to help that problem.

    • I agree with your entire statement. We should be focused more on those who are already involved with five to six figures (or more) of student debt. Which then you may tackle on more debt when buying a house, a car, and starting a family. I thought President Obama was going to take on this feat, but maybe I was mistaken or he lowered his expectations to just the Community College level.

  3. I think one of purposes of America’s College Promise is to try to cut down on some of that crushing student debt. If a student can get the first 2-years done at a community college and then go to a 4-year institution to finish the Bachelor’s degree that makes it cheaper and less debt for the student.

    I think the another purpose of America’s College Promise is to try to address some of the short comings in k-12. Higher Education is still voluntary. So, if a student had issues in High School, no matter what the issue were, community college can be place to learn and address any deficits before you hit the job market.

  4. As we’ve seen with other venues for higher education- more guarantees and government money in the pot doesn’t mitigate the cost of education. In fact, it leads to an increase in the cost of education. The more money that’s available leads to more ways to spend that money. It’s why we are in a higher education bubble right now that’s almost worse than the housing bubble.

  5. It all sounds very exciting but this is going nowhere in the current congress. The only thing addressing the issue during the State of the Union Speech does is to put the conversation on the table where it could be for years until we hit the next fiscal crisis.