MIAMI - In a move that bucks national trends and is sure to change the education affordability debate, Miami Dade College, the largest public institution of higher learning in the country, will offer free admission starting next semester to all qualifying local high school graduates.
And qualifying is relatively simple: Get a B average, be a legal resident of Miami-Dade county, pass college entry tests and apply for federal financial aid. The cost of admission will be paid for by the American Dream Scholarship, which will cover 60 credits - enough to attain an Associate's Degree.
Victor Sanchez, vice-president of the United States Students Association, was enthusiastic. "Ultimately," Sanchez said via telephone, "we hope that school is free for everybody, but this is a first step to make education free and to make education a right."
The Obama administration, which has championed community colleges as necessary in improving American competitiveness in the world economy, fully supports the scholarship. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan said, "Community colleges must play a critical role as we work to lead the world in college graduates by 2020. Initiatives like the American Dream Scholarship at Miami Dade College will help us achieve this goal while making college a reality for thousands of students."
Miami Dade communications director Juan Mendieta, reached by phone, said that the college has a long history of cooperation with the White House, "regardless of the president in office." Because of the college's size, it often serves as an education lab, and can set trends nationwide.
Miami Dade is the first, and currently the only, college to offer free tuition to all local students. Given its leadership status, are other colleges likely to follow suit?
"Some of the things that we've done have been a catalyst for other colleges to follow," Mendieta said. "But you have to have the financial wherewithal, and we've been blessed that we have some tremendous benefactors" that recognize the school's contribution to the community.
With a Hispanic population of nearly 70 percent and the highest proportion of immigrants of any large city in the world, Miami and surrounding Miami-Dade County are sensitive to the issues facing immigrants. Consequently, many are wondering: what does this mean for undocumented students?
"That's something that oftentimes is not considered, if that population is going to be considered marginalized," says Sanchez from USSA. "You invest money to educate these students from K-12, and they've done everything right and get into an institution of higher education, but if they aren't afforded the same opportunity, you marginalize a community that's willing to contribute to the economy."
But Miami Dade, Mendieta said, is fully aware of this. Dr. Eduardo J. Padrón, its president, has served on the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans and elsewhere, and the school educates and graduates more Latinos and African Americans than any other college in the country.
"Dr. Padrón and Miami Dade have been probably the most vociferous advocates for the DREAM Act," Mendieta said, adding that "it was our four students" who left from Miami's Freedom Tower and walked to Washington, D.C. in the Trail of Dreams. The students walked to raise awareness about the DREAM Act, which Republicans defeated in Congress in December.
Mendieta explained that people who are not officially residents of the county could not receive free tuition, and, by state law, students who are not residents of Florida cannot pay in-state tuition; instead, they pay a rate that is five to six times higher.
However, Mendieta said, undocumented students who can prove that they reside in the county were eligible to have the school pay for the entire in-state portion of their tuition.
"Any move or any situation where you have a blatant approach to increasing access is a good thing," Sanchez said. "Rewarding folks that have played by the rules that have done their best to try and achieve education and success is good; they should be rewarded."
President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at this year's graduation ceremony. He is expected to tout the school's steps to increase education access.