MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Even though it was billed as bipartisan, Republicans did not welcome President Obama's recent proposal to make tuition free at community colleges. It's widely expected it won't go anywhere in the GOP-controlled Congress, but it made us wonder what students at community colleges think about the plan. Youth Radio reporter Tylyn Hardamon went to his own campus to find out.
TYLYN HARDAMON, BYLINE: It's the first day of classes for this semester at Berkeley City College in Berkeley, Calif. There are hundreds of students rushing to class, printing out their schedules and standing in line at the financial aid office. That's where I ran to Dominique Bell and Tyfanni Edwards, both 19.
DOMINIQUE BELL: We're standing in the financial aid line to see what's going on with our financial aid.
TYFANNI EDWARDS: Yeah, you know, just trying to see what's going on with that because I haven't got it yet.
HARDAMON: We've actually known each other for a long time, which made it kind of awkward interviewing them. We all went to high school just a few blocks away and now we all go to this community college for the same reason - it's cheap. I figured Dominique would be a shoo-in to support free tuition, but for her, it wasn't so simple.
BELL: Can I ask a question? So, is it like, you're not going to need financial aid, too? Or - because that's kind of free, financial aid, right?
HARDAMON: I get why she's confused. Community college students are more likely than students at four-year schools to qualify for federal financial aid in the form of need-based Pell grants. So for Dominique and her friend Tyfanni and for me, too, our tuition is already free. But it's not actually enough, says Dominique.
BELL: Are they going to pay for textbooks? Are they going to pay, like, other things, like, you have to have other things other than just tuition paid for. It's not only about tuition.
HARDAMON: Money was so tight in my house that one time my mom had to choose between buying me a textbook, or paying the phone bill. Community college students tend to be lower-income and more financially independent than kids at four-year schools. To help pay for rent, food and transportation, students like me have jobs, jobs that prevent the majority of us from going to school full-time. Which means it'll take us longer to graduate.
KIM KYLLAND: I always had to work full-time and support myself that way. So it made it really hard to take, you know, a full 12 units or something and do well in the classes.
HARDAMON: Kim Kylland is 28 and she's been going to community colleges off and on for the last 10 years.
KYLLAND: I live in an apartment with my husband. We have rent, we have a car payment, we have a phone bill like anybody else, you know - tons of bills.
HARDAMON: If the president's plan paid for tuition, low-income students could use their Pell grants to cover living expenses, says Thomas Bailey. He's the director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. But beyond the free tuition idea, Professor Bailey wants more discussion about how to make community colleges better for students.
THOMAS BAILEY: I think it's clear that the proposal will get more students in the front door, but it's not clear that it will get students to the finish line.
HARDAMON: Bailey wants community colleges to simplify pathways to a degree and make credits more transferable to four-year schools. He says both would help improve completion rates. According to the Department of Education, only about a third of students at community colleges complete their degrees, and fewer than 12 percent go on to get their bachelor's. Free tuition or not, those numbers worry students like me. For NPR News I'm Tylyn Hardamon.
BLOCK: That story was produced by Youth Radio.
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