On Monday, Congresswoman Annie Kuster met with members of River Valley Community College staff and leadership, students, and Claremont officials to discuss President Barack Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college. The roundtable discussion was held at the college.
The president’s proposal, known as America’s College Promise, would allow students who have at least a 2.5 grade point average (GPA), attend at least half-time, and are making steady progress toward completing their program have their tuition eliminated. The program, which would be an opt-in program for each state, would be paid for by federal and state funds, with the federal government paying three-quarters of the costs and states contributing one-fourth of the cost.
Kuster thanked everyone for being a part of the roundtable. “I appreciate you being a part of this. I feel very strongly about education and opportunity,” she said. “Community college is an open door. It allows people to come back and get an education.
“I’ve gotten very engaged with higher education and workforce development. I’m very interested in creating the workforce that is needed in New Hampshire,” she continued. “I read an article in the New York Times that said the middle class is shrinking, in a good way. 10 percent have moved beyond the $100,000 mark and others are coming up into it. The number one reason for this has been education and our ability to adapt. As I was reading it, I thought a lot about River Valley Community College and the programs they offer.
“I am looking for concepts on how we can help. The number one barrier in New Hampshire is affordability. New Hampshire is the number one highest in debt for higher education. The average is about $33,000. There are things you want to be at number one, this is not one of them,” Kuster said.
She briefly spoke about the outcomes of a roundtable held at the N.H. Technical Institute in Concord. “There was a lot of resistance to the program. They said when they hear something is free, they want to know what the catch is. The students were concerned with staff being paid good salaries. They thought the 2.5 GPA wasn’t high enough.”
Kuster asked what the students thought. Peter Apicelli, President of the Student Center, said, “In community colleges, I’ve observed a lot that the average age is a little older. In Manchester, it is 37. Here, it is 26 to 27. This program seems to be geared to graduating high school students. Would it apply to older students as well?”
Kuster replied, “Any age student could go tuition-free.”
Apicelli was also interested if those who already had degrees would be eligible for the free tuition. “We have the only medical health lab program in New Hampshire and Vermont. There are a lot of people in the program who already have a degree. Are they eligible?”
Kuster replied, “That is part of what we’re figuring out now.”
Amber Fields, a RVCC mom, commented about the financial aspects. “I’m a mom of five kids and work. This would be great to have. I didn’t go after high school and now I’m playing catch up. Funding is important. I work with some women around my age who can’t afford to go. This would be a great opportunity for them.”
Fellow student Christine Aubrey agreed with Fields. “The loans are important. A lot of people live off them. Some use the extra money to hold onto in case something comes up. I’m a full-time student and work. I take a lot of night classes.”
Amber Longdon, another RVCC student, said, “I fell on the border (with financial aid) when I would have had to use my parents income. It was worth it to wait to take the loans on my own.”
Longdon, who has worked in the Claremont welfare office, commented on a lack of role model for those who are lower income. “I’ve seen a lot of families come in where the parents didn’t go to college. The kids don’t have a lot of role models and they have to decide, 'which poverty do I choose?' They don’t see the other side.”
Harvey-Smith commented, “82 percent of our students are first generation.”
First generation students are classified as students who are the first members of their family to go to college. Comparatively, Keene State College, a four year liberal arts college, has approximately 45 percent of their population as first generation students.
Claremont City Manager Guy Santagate discussed the economic ramifications facing Claremont and Sullivan County. “The average income in Claremont is $41,000. Sullivan County is behind everyone else in the state but the North Country. We have jobs but we can’t fill them. We don’t have the skilled workforce. Economic success is directly connected to education.
“If you come back when you’re older, you’re more serious. You get a better education than right from high school,” he continued.
Zach Williams, Business and Development Coordinator in Claremont said, “The means testing is going to be important. People need to appreciate the cost of community college.”
Kuster continued the discussion. “To compete in the global market you need to have a skilled workforce. We are falling behind other countries in some areas. The jobs are right here. The money will stay in the local economy. There is a concern with losing manufacturing jobs.”
Williams said, “We have three and a half percent unemployment in Claremont. We have a problem with being under employed. We have a number of phenomenally qualified people. Taking the time off for a degree is just too difficult.”
Kuster agreed that was an issue for many. “There need to be more classes at night and on weekends along with shorter programs.”
In a statement to the press after the roundtable, Kuster said, “Every student in New Hampshire should have access to the higher education opportunities he or she needs in order to go on to a successful career. Today’s roundtable gave me a chance to hear directly from students and faculty about how Congress can increase educational opportunity for Granite State’s families. From decreasing student loan debt to helping families save for college and so much more, I look forward to taking the many participant ideas from today’s roundtable back with me to Washington, where I will continue to fight for expanded access to education for every American.”
Eagle Times | By Nancy A. Cavanaugh | Feb 24, 2015