On Nov. 12, when state Sen. Vincent Fort officially stepped into Atlanta’s crowded race for mayor, he told supporters he wants to offer tuition-free community college to the city’s public school grads.
The Atlanta Democrat, who just joined about a dozen other candidates vying for the position, said he’d like to mimic a program implemented in Boston, which offers high school graduates two years of free schooling at a few local colleges.
Boston’s office of workforce development runs the free schooling initiative, but Fort has yet to explain how, if he’s elected, such a program could work in Atlanta.
Harvey Newman, a public policy expert at Georgia State, said he thinks Fort’s goals for higher education reform seem a bit far-fetched.
“To me, it sounds like a campaign promise not likely to go anywhere,” he told The Signal.
For starters, Newman said, Atlanta’s government is organized differently than Boston’s.
“The city government and Atlanta Public Schools are separate government agencies, so the mayor has no control over decisions made by the school board,” he said. “Any coordination of efforts between the two organizations is difficult.”
Plus, if Fort gets elected, Newman said, he won’t bring to City Hall the same friendly bonds with state officials that his predecessor, Mayor Kasim Reed, did when elected in 2009.
“Unless the state government decides it wants this program to happen, it most likely could not,” he said. “It seems unlikely that the state would wish to support a program proposed by Sen. Fort.”
In order to bring his plan to fruition, Fort would need to coordinate with the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents (BOR), and “the state’s Board of Regents has control over the community colleges in Georgia,” Newman said. “The Regents are even less anxious to cooperate with the city government (or the school board) in most instances. So, the question comes down to who would pay for the ‘free tuition.’”
Tuition costs can weigh heavy on families from less-than-affluent neighborhoods in Atlanta, and many students across the country are financially crippled by the debt they take on to foot the bill for college. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s public school system is suffering from budget setbacks prompted by the Great Recession.
Fred Brooks, a policy teacher at Georgia State who has published research on the detrimental impact of student loan debt on economic development in the state, said the opportunity to attend community college for free should be attractive to many underprivileged students in Atlanta.
“[Fort’s proposal] would definitely appeal to students who come from low to moderate income families that would have to borrow money to attend school,” he said. “I don’t know how much it would appeal to higher-income families.”
Brooks said taking out loans to earn a degree from a “well-respected college remains a wise investment.”
“If making two-year community college education debt-free would reduce the numbers of students borrowing money to attend any for-profit college, it would definitely be worthwhile,” he said. “By far the worst part of the student loan debt crisis, is students borrowing large amounts of money to attend for-profit colleges and then struggling to find gainful employment that allows them to pay off their loans.”
But Anthony Nguyen, Georgia State’s Student Government Association (SGA) communications director, said most of the student-run senate believes it’s up to the federal government to address concerns of student loan debt crises nationwide.
“Student debt is something we all understand and care for, but it is something we see as a federal concern,” he said. “Any outsider can see how much influence [SGA] has, like how our continued support for [undocumented immigrant] students helped lead to the admittance of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students at Georgia State, but we know our bounds.”
United States President Barack Obama attempted to kickstart a program similar to Fort’s in early 2015. Obama’s plan, which has all but fizzled out, sought to ensure two years of community college would be as “free and universal” as most high schools, according to The Washington Post.
Still, Brooks said he thinks Fort’s plan for tuition-free schooling would appeal to many Atlanta voters, come election time. But he said he’s not sure how the proposal would resonate with the city’s business and real estate communities, which pack major punch during local elections.
“Based on [those communities’] power and influence in Atlanta politics, it would be extremely helpful to get them on your side of the issue,” Brooks said. “And few major policy changes happen in Atlanta without the support of the business community.”
Nguyen said he thinks Fort is “truly a man of the people” whose endurance and determination as a community advocate is revered by many, including other SGA members who’ve marched with him in solidarity for civil rights issues. But he maintains that critics of the mayoral race should wait until the contest is further underway before endorsing or condemning the candidates’ platforms.
“There still needs to be more time to allow the other candidates to distinguish themselves from the pool and see what their intentions are,” he said. “Sen. Fort is an amazing representative and is truly a man of the people, but I need to see his policy potential in action and also in detail.”