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Need for free community college is now

In 2015, President Obama proposed America’s College Promise, which would provide free tuition for students attending community college. The basis for his plan was to address the fact that, by the end of this decade, two-thirds of jobs will require higher education.

Yet almost two years later, the program seems to be withering on the vine.

The next president must make this a priority in order for it to succeed within the intended time frame. There is still time for both presidential candidates to speak to the program’s future.

It’s time to re-examine the arbitrary K-12 paradigm for public education funding.

More than two decades into the Information Age, we’re still using educational standards developed for an economy based on agriculture and manufacturing. Our country’s educational needs have evolved as our world changed, and new approaches have always generated controversy.

Even the notion of publicly funding a high school education for every student, something we take for granted today, probably seemed radical at the beginning of the 20th Century – a time when most Americans had only an 8th grade education.

The concept of free college is not new. For example, as the high school movement swept the country from 1910 to 1940, the City College of New York offered free tuition. It provided opportunities and social mobility for immigrants, particularly Jewish students who were barred from many colleges due to anti-Semitic admissions practices.

There are also successful contemporary models.

The Tennessee Promise Initiative has covered community college tuition for more than 16,000 students and had an 80 percent retention rate in its first year. Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, offers free tuition to its public universities – even extending this benefit to American students!

However, skepticism persists.

The Albuquerque Journal recently published an opinion column by Mary Clare Reim of the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning, Washington-based think tank. She not only condemned the idea of free tuition, but questioned the value of community colleges altogether based on a few misleading assumptions.

She first criticized graduation rates at community colleges; but she overlooked the fact that many students don’t complete their programs for financial reasons, which America’s College Promise directly addresses.

She also claimed that free community college is a bad public investment because it would actually drive tuition up. In reality, it would apply downward pressure on the prices of four-year schools by making a bachelor’s degree a two-year endeavor, cutting nearly half of the total cost many students spend.

Most importantly, she fails to recognize the value added to our economy by developing the talent hidden in underserved populations.

I didn’t fully appreciate this until I had the chance to teach at a community college and witness firsthand how the barriers many of these students have had to overcome speaks to their resilience, resourcefulness, and creativity – character traits that are essential to our workforce and economic prosperity.

I’ve seen some of my former students go on to earn graduate degrees, start small businesses, and even be elected to public office.

America will always have a certain number of thought leaders and trend setters, but I like to think of our best community college students as the “difference makers.” They are the upwardly mobile, non-traditional, and first-generation students who drive additional growth by solving problems and optimizing innovation.

Most economists believe that the societal returns on investment for post-secondary education are considerable, and some suggest it is the most cost-effective way to deal with inequality.

One way or another, casting a wider net for raw talent will be essential to American competitiveness.

Hopefully our next president will utilize the America’s College Promise program to do so.

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