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Expert alert: Would President Obama’s community college proposal accomplish its aims?

The success of President Obama’s proposal to provide two free years at community college depends upon whether it will truly eliminate the barriers that keep students from attending, says Brent Cejda, a former community college administrator who serves as chairman of the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“It all boils down to one thing: What can the money be used to pay for?”  Cejda said.

Cejda (pronounced Shay-duh) developed and implemented UNL’s community college leadership certificate program and served for nine years as executive director of the National Council of Instructional Administrators, an affiliate council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

He is a past president of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges, which recognized him in 2002 with an emerging scholar award and in 2014 with a senior scholar award. He is principal investigator of a National Science Foundation grant, “Developing Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges: Tapping the Potential of All Students,” which has involved more than 100 community colleges in designing research experiences for community college students.

He is available to discuss the implications of President Obama’s proposal, part of the State of the Union address to be delivered Tuesday.

“Education, everyone understands, is the key for success for our kids in the 21st century,” President Obama said when he announced the proposal earlier this month. “It’s not just for kids. We also have to make sure everybody has the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better pay, better jobs, better benefits.”

The proposal calls for the federal government to pay 75 percent of the average cost of community college, with states providing the remainder . The cost to the federal government is projected to be more than $60 billion over 10 years.

Obama said his proposal, if implemented in all 50 states, would save full-time community college students an average of $3,800 per year in tuition. IT would benefit about 9 million students per year.

Cejda said that for most low-income students, federal Pell grants pay for most or all of community college tuition.

Transportation and child care expenses are the two major barriers that prevent students from being able to go to community college, he said.

“Unless it helps in that regard, the program may not provide additional benefit to low-income students,”  he said.

Cejda said other challenges arise because of the differing financing systems for community colleges. In about half the states, including Nebraska, property taxes or other local taxes help support community colleges, thus lowering tuition costs.

Legislatures in those states may be more willing to sign up for Obama’s program because the price tag for the required 25 percent state match would be smaller.

However, states where community colleges rely more heavily on tuition would have to pay more to participate.

Cejda’s community college experience began as an instructor at Butler Community College in Kansas. He later became an administrator at Butler and held administrative appointments at Edison State Community College in Ohio and Highland Community College in Kansas.

He can be reached for interviews at 402-472-0989 or 402-525-3352 (cell).  His email is bcejda2@unl.edu.

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