Ithaca, N.Y. — In 2014, for the second year in a row, student enrollment at Tompkins Cortland Community College fell by about 6 percent.

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TC3 still enrolls nearly 4,000 students, “but we have seen declines,” says the community college’s provost John Conners.

It’s unclear exactly why fewer local students would be choosing to go to community college. But assuming that cost is at least one major factor, President Barack Obama’s announcement this week to dramatically expand student access to community college could help reverse a worrying trend at TC3, according to Conners.

“In theory, it’s welcome news,” Conners says. “It could provide a much-needed benefit.”

President Obama

Conners explained that most students at the bottom of the economic spectrum typically have two options to help pay for TC3: 1) The Pell grant program or 2) the New York State Tuition Assistance Program.

What Obama is touting in a media blitz and speech on Friday, Conners said, would most likely help students a step up the income ladder: Those who don’t qualify (or only partially qualify) for the programs above, but still need assistance to pay for school.

“I think a broad range of our students could benefit,” Conners says. “Probably thousands.”

As Conners noted, President Obama will need the support of Congress to turn his plan into reality. In announcing it, Obama cited the Tennessee Promise program — which was spearheaded by a Republican governor — as an example of his plan’s bipartisan bonafides.

Reaction to the proposal has been mixed. David Bergeron, of the Center for American Progress, expressed some skepticism of the progress to Politico: “I don’t want to just have our low-income and least prepared students going to community colleges … because those community colleges are the least resourced.”

Conners, the TC3 provost, also had at least one serious reservation about Obama’s plan: That in having the federal government step in, state governments would have an excuse to shirk their responsibilities to pay for community colleges.

Already, Conners said, New York state is not meeting its obligation to cover one-third of the community college’s costs. That trend, he worried, would be exacerbated if the federal government gets involved.

“The real danger is that it would be a ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ situation,” Conners says. “It could become a zero sum game, and that’s the real danger.”

Still, overall, Conners praised the push to expand access to community college and said it could help the lives of many.

“I think it’s a very positive move,” he said. “I’m very skeptical if the powers that be in Washington will coalesce and advance behind, but it’s the start of a discussion.”

Conners added that, even if the proposal doesn’t come to pass, the president’s push will at the very least draw more attention to the benefits of community colleges.

“We very much appreciate the president shining a light on the value and contribution of community colleges, and that we are a meaningful place for all students from all different backgrounds to consider starting their higher education careers,” he said.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.