Last month, President Obama unveiled a historic new program aimed at making higher education more accessible to millions of Americans. Community colleges are still an under appreciated aspect of the American education system – they have a flexible scheduling system, open enrolment, and cater to students both young and old as they work to gain an education that will better prepare them for the current job market. I know about the benefit of community colleges because I attended one when I was a homeschooled high school student. I saw an incredibly diverse student body, all seeking to do different things with their education, but still committed to balancing work, school, and life in general. Community colleges are a crucial investment, and President Obama has a groundbreaking plan to ensure that more hardworking students can benefit from them.
This plan would make the two-year associates degree offered at community colleges absolutely free to students who qualify. 75% of the funding would come from the federal government, while 25% would come from the state. It is predicted to cost $60 billion over the next ten years, and the White House estimates that it could benefit over nine million college students. In order to qualify, students must maintain a 2.5 grade point average over the course of their two year degree, and commit to attending school at least half-time, to ensure that they finish their degree in a timely manner. This helps students who are working their way through college, or have family obligations, so it appeals to a wide variety of students. Additionally, the community colleges looking to qualify for this extra funding must meet requirements of their own. They must provide academic programs that help transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities (a popular choice among younger students looking to save money while fulfilling more basic requirements), or some sort of occupational training in fields that are high in demand. Basically, this means that the government is trying to help individuals gain degrees for jobs that are important in the job market, such as teachers or public servants.
Sounds great, right? Some don’t believe this plan will help poorer students, who already benefit from federal Pell grants, and others believe that this would increase taxpayer burdens by tens of billions of dollars. In addition, the White House hasn’t completely decided on how it will pay for this program, and it is almost likely that it will be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate. This Congress is unlikely to fund a program that increases federal spending, unless the White House is willing to meet some of its demands, such as decreasing regulations on big banks.
At the same time, this program carries immense promise for the student population of the United States who in total carry $1.2 trillion in student-related debt. Education has an enormous return on investment – by investing in education, we help to create a smarter, more innovative generation of Americans who can contribute to the job market. Additionally, community colleges carry an unfair stigma that the value of the education they provide is less than traditional four-year universities. This is because of perceived low expectations for poorer students, but from my experience, this is not the case at all. Throughout my academic career, some of the best teachers I’ve had have come from my community college classes. By increasing funding to community colleges, and encouraging more students – many of whom are middle-class – we are tapping into an incredible and still under-appreciated educational resource that has potential to strengthen this generation of learners and workers.