Is it Really Time for Free College?
Today’s pop quiz has only one question: Is free college the best hope for the future of the American economy? Some say yes and some say no. Who’s right?
President Barack Obama recently proposed making two years of community college free for anyone willing to work for it. Advocates say the idea stands to benefit some 9 million students per year, as well as eventually boost the entire economy; opponents believe the notion will do nothing to dent the American education gap and actually save middle-class families little.
I believe that I know something about community colleges, having served for 30 years as a professor of business administration at Long Beach City College in California. And as a former community college student myself, I experienced the unique benefits this education provides.
The complex mission of the California Community College system – the largest such higher education network in the country – did always impress me. Preparing students to transfer to a university and offering vocational certification skills and adult coursework are expansive undertakings.
Add remedial and specialized instruction, and you have a supermarket of educational services right in most California communities. Other states utilize community colleges to similar benefit.
Some who qualify academically for college likely can’t afford it. The College Board reports that a “moderate” budget for an in-state public college for the 2013–2014 academic year averaged $22,826 (almost twice that at a private university). Cost of higher education in the U.S. jumped 1,225% over the last 36 years, again almost twice the rate of supposedly out-of-control medical costs over the same period.
I strongly agree that to qualify for the president’s proposed free tuition, standards (like those proposed) must be established. Students need to maintain a 2.5 grade point average and enroll at least half-time and make progress toward degrees.
Those who benefit from a free two-year college education must demonstrate that they deserve such a financial break.
Obama’s bold proposal is the most encouraging idea for higher education to emerge from Washington in decades. Like the original GI Bill of Rights that helped returning World War II veterans attend college – aka the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – our president’s plan potentially adds two years of school to many young adults’ education. Few can argue against that.
The idea’s right on time: We are witness to a historical and widening gap in America between the very rich and the ever-shrinking middle class. Critics, for instance, assailed most recent job creation, pointing out that the jobs created paid relatively little and required lower-level skills. The proposal, America’s College Promise, can be a vital tool in reversing this trend.
It might make entering the pipeline to higher education and to four-year degrees easier for untold numbers of students. The White House estimates that a full-time, deserving community college student stands to save an average of $3,800 a year. In my state, more students ought to use community college as a pathway to schools like the University of California (UC).
Note: In fall 2013, UC enrolled more than 15,500 students who transferred from community colleges; their performance is largely indistinguishable from students who enter UC as freshmen.
Education is the key to our future. The Promise program, still to pass a Republican-controlled Congress, has the potential to knit together support across the political, racial, and class divides that split our nation. It will send a much-needed message to millions of motivated citizens that they can share the American dream – or at least start on the road to it.
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Phillip Q. Shrotman is founder and president of Principal Planning Service, Inc. in Long Beach, Calif. He was a professor in the Business Division at Long Beach City College for over 29 years, where he held the position as Coordinator for Financial Planning and Insurance for the college. He holds a Community College Instructors Credential from the University of California at Los Angeles and a master’s from the University of San Francisco. He also holds the profession designations of General Securities Principal of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), Series 7 and 24. He has appeared as a guest on KABC Talk Radio and various television and radio programs.
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