President Obama’s proposal, to make community college free of cost for all Americans, is generating a lot of controversy. Major complaints are that:
- The projected cost of $6 billion per year is too high and the program is highly duplicative with other scholarship programs such as Pell grants.
- Education is primarily a state and local responsibility, not federal.
- The graduation rate at community colleges is only 21%, much lower than at other types of educational institutions.
- There is a whole new marketplace of non-degree credentials such as competency-based programs and micro-certifications which often provide greater variety, quality and monetary value than community college programs.
These criticisms are largely valid and should largely be incorporated into the guidelines of the President’s proposal as they are drawn up and submitted to Congress.
But they miss the larger point. Today, about 30% of young people in the U.S. graduate from a four year college. Tuition and fees at public college averages $9,000 per year while the comparable cost at private colleges is $31,000. Loan debt for college graduates averages $27,000 per year, and is much higher for many. And, according to the above chart from the New York Times, educational attainment in the U.S. lags behind the rest of the developed world.
Today’s increasingly high-tech and interconnected world puts a huge premium on educational attainment and America’s system of higher education is not meeting the challenge. It is too expensive and not educating enough people, especially minorities and those with low-incomes.
The best way to address this problem in a cost-efficient manner, which is a necessity in today’s fiscal climate, is to expand opportunities at our 1100 community colleges. Community colleges are not only incredibly low cost operations, they accept all students and start them out at whatever academic level is necessary. They provide the ideal venue to lift up large numbers of average and previously-failed students and turn them into productive members of society. Boosting community college enrollments will, in turn, give our economy a big boost.
This is the real reason why President Obama’s free tuition plan should be taken seriously. It will shine a strong light on an educational sector whose potential is greatly under-appreciated by many Americans.