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Community College Plan Must Focus On Completion: Latino Experts

To qualify for free tuition students of any age would have to go to school at least part-time, have a C+ average and make steady progress.

President Barack Obama's ambitious blueprint to make the first two years of community college free for students could be a game changer for many Latinos - provided the goal is to ensure completion of a degree, say Latinos in the field of education.

"I think it's a wonderfully positive message about college access, that college is possible, and it sets expectations for student attainment, like continuous enrollment and maintaining a good GPA. For all those reasons it's good," said Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, which measures and focuses on best practices to increase the number of Latino college graduates.

But as experts and families wait to see the details of America's College Promise Proposal which will be presented in a few weeks, one aspect to examine is the broader issue of college affordability. While the plan promises to pick up tuition for those who are not eligible for Pell Grants - mainly middle-class students - low-income families eligible for grants still have costs beyond tuition.

"We know paying for books, transportation and living expenses is very difficult for some of our Latino students," said Santiago.

While Latinos have gained in college enrollment in recent years, Hispanics were just 9 percent of adults between 25 and 29 with a college degree. As Pew Research points out, this gap is mainly due to the fact that Latinos are less likely to enroll in a four-year college, attend a selective college and enroll full-time than their non-Latino white counterparts.

Marta Tienda, a professor of demographics and sociology at Princeton University, said she agrees with the premise of the proposal, "but it will be only be successful if we actually help transition from two-year to four-year college programs. If that doesn't happen, it won't change the landscape," said Tienda, who has served on the White House Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

While some professions like dental hygienist or nurse practitioner call for a two-year associate degree, for many other fields and majors, two years of community college is only a ladder that doesn't by itself guarantee continuation, explained Tienda.

One issue that needs to be addressed is carrying capacity; in states like Texas and California with a large number of Latinos, there are more students than available slots, courses and resources at community colleges and four-year colleges. Tennessee's Promise program, one of the models for Obama's plan, had twice as many applicants as they anticipated, said Tienda.

There are also variations in community colleges, a fact well documented by Excelencia in Education and one of the factors in low completion rates among Latinos. There is also variation in the ability of community colleges to successfully transfer credits accepted by four-year institutions.

Obama's plan does call for "academic programs that fully transfer to local public four-year colleges and universities" or "occupational training programs with high graduation rates and that lead to degrees and certificates that are in demand among employers," according to the White House's fact sheet.

In the end, the devil will be in the details, said Tienda. "One year of college is better than none, but it's not what we want for Latino students, who are the fastest-growing segment of the population that will be supporting an aging population," she said.

Santiago said it is worth noting that the Clinton administration had made a similar pitch for making the first two years of college free, but it was not sustained beyond his time in the White House.

"I hope we don't send mixed messages to our community and then in two years whoever comes in de-emphasizes the issue of access and affordability in higher education," said Santiago. "It's harder and harder for Latino students to see that."

--Sandra Lilley