By Shoshanna Israel
Obama’s SOTU (or State of the Union for the uninitiated) address was a departure from many of his previous ones on the subject of education. Where, in the past, he has opted to increase accountability for higher education institutions, and has made various comments on student loans and loan forgiveness; this time the President brought up a little talked about facet of our education system, community college. He proposed that community college should be free for all students, with a few caveats; a 2.5 GPA and making progress toward one’s degree are the main rules. Significant discussion has ensued over the efficacy and social ramifications of this plan. With Pell grant money already available to many impoverished students, critics wonder whether the President’s plan will only bring costs down for those who can already comfortably afford tuition, which, according to the College Board, amounts to around $3,700 per year. For more insight, one can look to the state of Tennessee, whose program “The Tennessee Promise” shares many features with that of the president. It is a program designed to provide free “last dollar” tuition to community colleges for students who maintain good academic standing. One major feature of the program that sets it apart from that of the president is that it matches students with mentors whose responsibilities often overlap with that of a high school guidance counselor. One such mentor wrote “I’m [the mentored students’] form-filling babysitter,” “I stay on them to fill out their FAFSA on time.” In the state of Tennessee, a whopping 90% of the high school graduating class enrolled in the community college scholarship program, though it is expected some will choose other options such as a four year college come springtime.
President Obama explained that offering students community college tuition free will be akin having 15, not 13 years of public, universal schooling. Though it is unclear if free tuition will be sufficient to make this outcome a reality, the need for more educated students is both pressing and obvious. First off, the retirement of Baby Boomers will leave a vacuum of over 25 million jobs over the next decade in what is called “middle skills” jobs, or the types of jobs that require some education, especially vocational education. Additionally, roughly half of STEM bachelor’s degree earners begin their education with some community college; and those that do transfer to four year institutions tend to continue their education and complete their degrees at higher rates than those that started at a four year university. In this sense, the community college is a stepping stone, preparing students academically and financially for either their career or their continued education. It appears Obama’s community college plan has sound benefits, and could potentially receive bipartisan support. The governor, Bill Haslam, who created and implemented Tennessee’s plan was Republican, and Tennessee has been a staunchly red state in the last two decades. Universal education, and the economic benefits it accrues to society have long been a part of the social fabric of our nation. It is in this spirit that we must consider educational reform; to fuel our economies and encourage socioeconomic and scholarly development for years to come.