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What A Federal Plan To Offer Free Community College Could Mean For Arizona

Published: Wednesday, February 24, 2021 - 1:35pm
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MARK BRODIE: The Biden administration says it's looking to offer free community college to Americans; as a candidate, Biden said he would provide two years of community college without debt. Twenty-five states already offer free access to community college, including California, Nevada and New Mexico. Most of those are what's called "last dollar" scholarships, meaning the state will cover what's left after students apply for financial aid and grants. With me to talk about what the president's plan could mean for Arizona is Rufus Glasper, president and CEO for the League for Innovation in the Community College. He's also chancellor emeritus at the Maricopa Community College System, which, by the way, holds KJZZ's license. And Chancellor Glasper, what do you make of Presidents Bi — President Biden's plan, even without all the details? Does this seem like a worthwhile endeavor?

RUFUS GLASPER: Oh, definitely. I believe it is a worthwhile endeavor. Though the whole notion regarding free community college, I believe, is tied to the fact that here in the United States, our K-12 system, we've already stated in the Constitution that we have a right to free and public education, and the Constitution requires that all students be given this equal education opportunity, quite frankly, no matter what their race, ethnic background, religion or sex, or whether they are rich or poor, citizens or non-citizens. And because of our structure, we have been operating that once you, you leave the public school system and you move into higher ed, that particular right should no longer be made available to you. But I also believe that during the pandemic, there's been a spotlight that has been placed on, on those individuals who are at least described as first generation and, and first in their family and middle to low income in terms of access that are being impacted by the pandemic. And these are our primary students. These are the same students that were possibly, in many cases, on free and reduced meals. And we believe that this population is being impacted and the plan can help them.

BRODIE: Well, it's interesting because as you mentioned, during the pandemic, the spotlight has been shifted somewhat to community colleges and to students who are benefiting from them. We saw the same thing to an extent during the Great Recession, right? When a lot of folks decided to go back to school or needed to go back to school to get new job training or other skills, things like that. Is that the kind of thing that you think a free community college program could really help students with?

GLASPER: Yes, I believe that that is the kind of thing. But it, it's pretty interesting to try and compare the current pandemic to the 2008-or-so recession. And many of us have done that, especially when the pandemic started, because we were looking at the enrollment to surge as, as we felt that the pandemic would decline. And it literally took approximately four or five years for the enrollment to actually start to actually recover. But it did start to surge after the last, the last recession. But these are different times. During the last recession, as jobs were available, people were able to go to those jobs. They weren't afraid about going home and spreading an infectious disease. So today, students are making choices.

BRODIE: So as you, of course, know, Maricopa County has a very large community college system, not a tiny one in Pima County either. If this plan or something like it were to go into effect, what would be the impact on Maricopa County Community College District? Like, how would, how would the district change? How would it, I mean, would it see a massive influx of new students, do you think?

GLASPER: Well, this is what I would hope would happen within the state of Arizona. And both the Obama plan and the Biden plan talk about the state filling those dollars that are left after either federal funding or some, some other first dollar funding and the state filling that void. We are well aware that in 2015, both the Maricopa system and the Pima system were eliminated from the budget.

BRODIE: Right.

GLASPER: For state budget reasons. So I would hope that what can happen from the plan — there's another component and that other component, I think will, will address both Maricopa and Pima and the state of Arizona. And it is new dollars that would be invested to encourage workforce. And what we are looking at, the type of support that the state has provided in more recent years, the state of Arizona, they have helped fund the I-10 Corridor in terms of looking at particular jobs that could be supported by the Maricopa colleges, Central Arizona College and also Pima. If that concept was being furthered by funding that came from the federal level, then I can see both of those institutions increasing their workforce programs and then also developing workforce programs that could be tied to what are now being described as micro-credentials or micro-pathways and getting individuals to work sooner than they would have been able to go to work under the old model in 2008, because they would be able to work with employers to develop these credentials that would allow them to move into the industry, and then those particular credentials are being defined now to be stackable. So, so with that in mind then I think both Maricopa and people could benefit.

BRODIE: That's interesting. So you think that if this were to go into effect and there were more students maybe looking for a community college degree or that kind of job training or skills training, it might incentivize, it sounds like you think, the community colleges to really maybe start up some new programs that they'd been thinking about or maybe that they hadn't been thinking about it, but that they just didn't have before. They'd, they'd be incentivized to get those up and running to meet this new demand.

GLASPER: Oh, definitely. And it becomes an ecosystem opportunity to look at what is needed within the state of Arizona relative to two construction programs, manufacturing programs and cyber and I.T. and aerospace and defense. And it also draws attention to the fact that Arizona is moving more towards a, what I would describe as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) economy as well. And for Maricopa and Pima and community colleges in Arizona, the National Academy of the Sciences are putting more focus around the definition of undergraduate STEM. And many don't recall or didn't even realize that construction, advanced manufacturing, welding, health care, biotechnology, transportation and energy fall under those categories. And if we focus on what's happening within Arizona and those particular industries, I think we can definitely increase the opportunities for employment, increase the economy and the economic impact in the state of Arizona.

BRODIE: All right. That is Rufus Glasper, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College. Also chancellor emeritus of the Maricopa Community College District. Chancellor Glasper, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

GLASPER: Thank you very much, Mark.

EDITOR'S NOTE: KJZZ is licensed to Maricopa County Community College District.

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