Obama’s Free College Plan Should Be Embraced by All

Updated Jan 13, 2015

When it comes to community colleges, there’s usually two schools of thought.

Some see the community colleges as mere extensions of high school. And since public school is free, why not give students two more years?

Welcome to the 13th and 14th grade.

The other more conventional view is that community colleges are great resources for all and represent the best way to cut down the high costs of college. Let students take care of basic requirements cheaply, then go to a great four-year college the last two years. It’s the “finishing school” approach. It’s worked in states like California, where the UC system openly welcomes qualified transfers.

Now President Obama has come up with a plan that combines both views of community college in a positive way. It recognizes community college as the great safety net in American society. And makes them free—conditionally.

According to the broad outlines as issued by the White House it’s fairly simple.

Students learn for free if they attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, stay enrolled, get it free.

Schools need to allow for transfers to four-year schools.

What’s not to like?

The White House estimates that up to 9 million students would benefit if every state takes part, resulting in a savings of up to $3,800 in tuition per year. (That figure could vary by region.)

But, of course, the rest of the story is simply a matter of political will.

Since there is no free lunch, the big question remains who will pay for this all. And that’s where the politics comes in.

In a Republican-controlled Congress, any initiative pushed by the president and Democrats will be difficult.

But this isn’t health care. It can’t even be called derisively “ObamaEd.”

No one doubts the pathetic general state of U.S. education in 2015 when compared to the rest of the world.

Here’s a headline in the Atlantic in December 2013: American Schools vs. the World: Expensive, Unequal, Bad at Math

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/american-schools-vs-the-world-expensive-unequal-bad-at-math/281983/

Some may argue the community colleges are a poor place to spend money for improvements and that emphasis should be on K-12.

But that’s a major overhaul. By comparison, addressing the community colleges is a do-able quick fix that can provide immediate help on some key areas. Students who can’t afford to stay in school may find themselves able to continue their education. The more they stay in, the more competitive they’ll be on the job market. Better jobs? That’s one way to help battle inequalities in our system.

The White House said the community college plan could cost $60 billion over ten years.

You can bet the GOP will launch some affordability argument that will doom the plan. That would be an extremely short-sided view.

You recall the old TV commercial selling cheap windshield wipers? Their bottom line: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

It doesn’t take much vision to understand that backing our community colleges now makes real sense.

Let’s hope Congress can build a bi-partisan effort to support the president’s plan.

For many people of color and middle class families, community colleges have been a dependable way up in society.

Anything that makes them an even better deal is more than welcome.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race, culture and politics for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog) Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media ; twitter@emilamok