Obama’s “Free” Community Colleges Power Grab: Imposing Common Core on Higher Education?

Quite obviously, the plan is a political move, one more attempt to gain Democratic voters through “free” programs. It is also a power grab, a way to get the public used to the idea of another federal program to which states answer, and as a way to further impose Common Core on college.  If someone wanted to make all college courses Common Core-compliant he would start at the introductory and community college level, where the most “help” is needed.  It is in the most vulnerable populations that the federal government, through the Department of Education, works its way. 


By Mary Grabar l January 28, 2014

In his State of the Union address President Obama promised to send Congress “a bold new plan” for community college students so they could have a “chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt.” He said, “I want to spread that idea all across America so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.”

His plan, America’s College Promise, is based on programs in Tennessee and Chicago, which presumably demonstrated “that free community college is possible.”

Little is known about the “Chicago” program, but the much ballyhooed “Tennessee Promise” has not yet enrolled one student.  At this point, students are still applying for the fall semester 2015.

Critics of Obama’s proposal note that community college is already either free to low-income students or a bargain for middle-class students, thanks to the federal Pell grant and other forms of financial aid.

Yet, the federal program would expand on what the Tennessee Promise promises: “last-dollar” scholarships to cover tuition and fees not covered by state and federal aid.  It would provide “first-dollar,” or zero-cost tuition, and would apply to adult students, not just recent high school graduates, as well as students attending at least half time.

The Tennessee program requires a 2.0 grade point average, along with eight hours of community service each term.  The federal program calls for a slightly higher 2.5 gpa.

Such low standards along with free tuition are sure to swell up college enrollments.

The entire grandiose plan is estimated to cost $60 billion over 10 years.

It’s unlikely that this proposal will succeed this year, as even its champions admit.

Quite obviously, the plan is a political move, one more attempt to gain Democratic voters through “free” programs.

It is also a power grab, a way to get the public used to the idea of another federal program to which states answer, and as a way to further impose Common Core on college.

College Classes “Synching Up” with Common Core

Common Core standards are already being imposed on colleges.  Common Core assessments, devised under the direction of progressive educators such as Linda Darling-Hammond, are now being used as criteria to determine “college readiness,” while college teaching is being tailored to Common Core guidelines.  These assessments, which are intended to end the “achievement gap,” are replacing tests like the ACT, which showed by their measurements that only about a quarter of high school students demonstrated readiness for college.  Few are noticing this or how faculty members teaching introductory courses have spent last summer in workshops on teaching the Common Core way.

One of the states most aggressively pushing the higher education Common Core alignment is Obama’s model state, Tennessee.  A June Hechinger Report article, “Higher education scrambles to get ready for the Common Core,” noted that summer workshops in Tennessee were devised to train university faculty to teach entry-level English and math courses “redesigned to account for what students now will be expected to learn in the 11th and 12th grades — and to synch up with the Common Core. . . .”

If someone wanted to make all college courses Common Core-compliant he would start at the introductory and community college level, where the most “help” is needed.

It is in the most vulnerable populations that the federal government, through the Department of Education, works its way.  One method, in this case, was by funding the 2013 working paper, “The Common Core State Standards: Implications for Community Colleges and Student Preparedness for College,” authored by the National Center for Postsecondary Research at Teachers College, Columbia University.  It describes the programs under which states have been learning how to comply with the new dictates.  One of these, “Core to College,” has ten participating states, and is funded by the Lumina, the William and Flora Hewlett, and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundations.

The familiar Common Core buzzwords, such as “critical thinking,” pepper this working paper.  Eliminating the achievement gap is disguised as preparation for college-level work:

The writers of the CCSS were concerned that depth and critical analysis in education are often sacrificed because of the need to cover large amounts of material.  They worked on the assumption that college readiness is best addressed by offering students multiple opportunities to engage with challenging texts and solve problems in different ways, that is, to practice the kinds of skills typically expected of college students.

“Multiple opportunities to engage with challenging texts” and “solving problems in different ways” disguise methods that allow lagging students to catch up with their more advanced peers.  It’s the opposite of what a college has demanded traditionally, including retaining “large amounts of material,” solving problems correctly, and reading on one’s own.

Common Core is all about eliminating the “achievement gap” and therefore obviating the meaning of “higher education.”

Significantly, the authors admit that the term “college readiness” is meaningless.  They write, “The CCSS writers followed the lead of ACT, Inc. (2006), Achieve, Inc. (n.d.) and others who argue that there is no substantive difference between college readiness and career readiness.  They are taken to be the same.”

Does one assume that a high school graduate who seeks a job (“career”) is on the same academic level as someone aspiring to attend college?  Students preparing for college traditionally took more academically rigorous courses and even earned different kinds of diplomas.  But with Common Core there is a one-size-fits-all diploma.

The fact that many students are not ready for college-level work, and need to take remedial classes, is taken as a sign that Common Core needs to be instituted, as an Inside Higher Ed’s April 2012 report, “Remediation: Higher Education’s Broken Bridge to Nowhere,” concluded.  This report contains mostly material from Complete College America, a nonprofit organization established “to work with states to significantly increase the number of Americans with quality career certificates or college degrees and to close attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations.”  It has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest donor to Common Core efforts, since 2009, the year of its establishment: in June of that year, they received almost $950,000, and in November were awarded over $8 million. In January 2014 they received $3.5 million.

Would “America’s College Promise” Ramp Up College Common Core Compliance?

Community College officials welcomed Obama’s proposal immediately and in spite of the fact that “critical features” are “not yet known (and in truth may not yet be known by the Administration),” as the American Association of Community Colleges information page noted. AACC has also benefited from the largesse of the Gates Foundation, receiving $500,000 in September 2009.  Bill Gates appeared at their meeting in Seattle in April 2010, and announced $110 million to “Transform Remedial Education,” according to a press release.

What would be “critical” about the free community college plan, AACC states, is “elaboration of these conditions through potential legislation.”

“Potential legislation” could mean just about anything—including Common Core requirements.

AACC has no problems with federal strings, such as states having to “provide matching funding, engage in certain specific policies including performance-based state funding, and commit to some type of maintenance of effort.”

But such requirements sound much like how the states got trapped into Common Core.

America’s College Promise would provide the final nail in the coffin of a federal agency that has already by subterfuge imposed unconstitutional federal Common Core standards on K-12 schools and has imposed itself on all aspects of college life from sexual harassment to micromanaging the number of athletes playing particular sports.

There is no end to what kind of new controls would come with the complete federal takeover of “free community colleges”—from the requirements to employ Common Core to engage in “community” or national service.

This is a scary scenario for most of us, except for bureaucrats and government yes-men like those at the AACC.

Although we do have a Republican Congress, we should heed the words on the AACC website: “It is possible that aspects of the proposal will be incorporated into the Higher Education Act.”


Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

Related Articles