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UNCF CEO: Obama's Community College Plan A 'Blunt Instrument'


President Obama went to a red state today to push his plan to cover community college tuition for some students. He touted that proposal at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That's what my budget makes two years of community college free for every responsible student.


SIEGEL: Not everyone is thrilled with the president's proposal about community college, and his critics aren't just the usual suspects. Joining me to discuss this is the CEO of the UNCF, formerly the United Negro College Fund, Dr. Michael Lomax. Welcome to the program, Dr. Lomax.

MICHAEL LOMAX: Thank you very much, Mr. Siegel.

SIEGEL: And what's wrong with the president's proposal?

LOMAX: Well, I think the president's proposals is a bit of a blunt instrument, when we really need to be much more laser-focused in making choices about where to support students most effectively to ensure that the lowest income students are able to get to and to complete college.

And community college is one of those opportunities for sure. But what we know about community college is that the lowest income and students of color who are the first generation in their families to the college don't fare well in community college. Our view is that the real engine for ensuring that more low-income students in need are able to get to and through college is really to invest further in Pell Grants, because those are grants which the students can take to any institution that they think is the right one for them.

SIEGEL: But first, when we think of an entitlement to two years of post-secondary education, which is what free community college offer would be, I guess it would be analogous to the entitlement to 12 years of public education. We don't means test high school. Even if poorer children fare worse in the 11th and 12th grades, we don't say those who could afford private school have to pay for it.

LOMAX: But we also don't invest in additional private school opportunities for well-off students. Right now, the average family income of a community college student is about $60,000 a year, well above the poverty rate. The president's program will support students with family incomes up to $200,000 a year. And what we know about higher education in this country is that, right now, high-income students are graduating at about 70 percent and low-income students, regardless of the institution they attend, are graduating at about 9 percent average.

SIEGEL: But isn't part of the distinction here that community colleges - yes, to some extent they're a stepping stone into a four year college program, but they're our apprenticeship programs. They're our vocational educational programs. They're where you can get trained for a skilled job in ways that we wouldn't expect. Four year colleges or universities should be doing that.

LOMAX: And we're seeing a renaissance at community colleges, and they are providing, you know, middle-skill opportunities. But, again, where they're having the most success is not with the lowest income students, not with students who have not gotten a good K-12 education, they're doing well middle income and above students.

SIEGEL: One argument for having very broad eligibility is that programs that everybody benefits from - social security, Medicare - are hugely popular programs. And that kind of assistance to people is never challenged politically. Programs that are targeted for the poor are challenged all the time. And if you want a popular benefit, make it available to a broader number of people.

LOMAX: The Pell Grant has been, for generations now, a universally applauded support for the lowest income college aspirants in our society. Further investing in the buying power of the Pell Grant will achieve much greater results for individual students and for the nation than focusing on one category of institution and giving broad entitlement to all the students who attend that institution, even those who do not have a financial need.

SIEGEL: Dr. Lomax, thank you very much for talking with us.

LOMAX: Thank you very much, Mr. Siegel.

SIEGEL: That's Dr. Michael Lomax, who is the CEO of UNCF - the UNCF, formally the United Negro College Fund. He spoke to us from Columbus, OH. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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