Obama calls for ‘free’ community college

Aidan Backus, Online Editor

Not many students watch the State of the Union Address, unless their history or government class requires them to. In the past the yearly speech has been nothing but politics as usual. But this year, President Barack Obama announced a program that could prove to be a game-changer for students across the country who are unable to pay for higher education.

In his Address, President Obama announced his “bold new plan … to lower the cost of community college to zero.” Arguing that 40 percent of college students attend community college, and two-thirds of new jobs require higher education, Obama called for Congress to pass legislation to fund free community college for all Americans. Though the deal requires students to maintain a certain GPA and graduate on time, it is hoped that students who might otherwise not be able to pay for community college will be able to take advantage of the program to better themselves and become valuable skilled laborers in the twenty-first century.

Workers with an associate’s degree make, on average, $10,000 per year more than those with just a high school diploma. The average student accrues $11,000 of debt in community college — debt will take at least two years to pay off.

Unfortunately, many factors other than the cost, including overcrowded classes, prevent students from completing community college. Indeed, only eight percent of Delta College attendees earn an associate’s degree or continue on to a four-year school, even though students who maintain a certain GPA are guaranteed entrance into a California State University.

The high dropout rate is not necessarily caused by the costs of education, although the fact that most community college students work at least 20 hours a week to make ends meet certainly does not help. Ensuring students develop a plan of study early may be more important; 50 percent of students who are advised on the classes they need to take for a certain career path will graduate or continue to a four-year college. Students who are not advised often take classes that they do not need, and are unable to complete their degree on time.

“It should be a priority to increase the number of young Americans in higher education and to keep them on track toward degrees,” Thomas McLarty, former White House chief of staff, said in the “Wall Street Journal.” “Tuition relief is part of the equation. But there is an untapped role for private business.”

McLarty argues that apprenticeship programs, which are common in Europe, would take stresses off community college; Obama’s plan would not resolve this problem.

In addition, many students drop out because they are not ready for academics at the college level; 52 percent of incoming community college students don’t have the necessary reading or math skills for classes relevant to their degree, and are trapped in remedial classes for several semesters.

But quality of community college academia doesn’t just suffer in remedial courses, especially when compared to university classes.

“[Classes at Delta College] are like regular [high school] classes that are really condensed,” Delta College attendee and Bear Creek alumnus Tomas Leonhart. “It’s the same amount of work in less time.”

In addition, the cost of community college is often defrayed by the government already. The American Association of Community Colleges found that only 28.9 percent of community college revenue is paid by students, and 38 percent of the students attending pay for tuition with federal grant money. California students can request a Board of Governors waiver, which eliminates all enrollment fees for community college.

All things considered, however, community college can be valuable for attaining a higher education. Compared to a $60,000 university education, free college strikes some students as quite a good deal.

“I already know what I want to do, which is being a nature photographer,” junior Aleksandr Laforge said. “But getting an art degree requires so much money that I will never make it back [if I attend a four-year university].”

In addition, many students are concerned that if they immediately attend a university they will not know what they want to study, and spend more than four years.

“After I graduate, I won’t know what I want to do with my life,” junior Fernando Martinez. “It will save my parents money just to get in my basic studies.”

Community colleges also have relatively few minimal requirements; to attend Delta College’s degree program, one must have a high school diploma or GED, be 18 years of age, and take a placement test. In contrast, students planning to attend a California State University immediately after high school must have a certain GPA and SAT scores, two years of a foreign language, and one year of a fine art.

It will take more than free tuition to ensure students can complete community college. However, the long-term goal of such plans — to make two years of college as universal as high school — will ensure America has an effective workforce capable of competing in the twenty-first century.