As an addition to this new year’s political lightning rods, President Barack Obama’s proposal to slash the cost of attending the nation’s community colleges to zero for qualified students quickly drew a sky-full of expected partisan flak.
It also gave a welcome push to the stalled conversation over cutting student debt for students in quest of a four-year degree, while suggesting alternatives to providing advanced education for individuals seeking jobs requiring more than a high-school education.
The president’s plan, “America’s College Promise,” was offered as a state-federal partnership targeting job training involving two free years in a four-year degree or two-year associate’s degree path.
Obama’s announcement came in Tennessee, where a free community college program is underway, and he cited Chicago’s Star Scholarship program, which will cover tuition, fees and books at City Colleges of Chicago for public school graduates carrying a 3.0 grade-point average and academically prepared for college-level classes.
There are numerous models out there. For example, Paducah, Kentucky, is home to West Kentucky Community and Technical College. For three years running it has been named among the nation’s top 10 Community and Technical Colleges by the Aspen Institute. A public-private partnership, initiated by the Paducah Rotary Club with matching donations from the city of Paducah and the Commissioners Court of McCracken County, created an endowment that allows every graduating senior in the county to attend WKCTC free. The fund picks up all costs after scholarships or grants.
Obama’s proposal itself wasn’t free from political effect. Any orchestrated GOP opposition to the president’s plan will certainly draw anti-education labeling as the 2016 general election looms. Republican opponents, of which there are many, start with House Speaker John Boehner, who balked at the plan’s estimated 10-year price tag of $60 billion.
That’s not small beans, but neither is the 1,120 percent increase in college costs over the last 35 years. Expect Obama’s proposal to place high among items in his State of the Union address Tuesday evening.
Cutting through the fiscal tangle inherent in any free community college partnership could take years of creative accounting. And personal incomes vary so widely state-by-state, that it will be difficult determining which state would receive what share of federal funding for the program.
Don’t expect race-track state or congressional action anytime soon.
At least the closely entwined issues of college costs and academic achievement for real world application are on the table — and must be addressed.
Any federal program should involve the private sector. Many corporations already partner with community colleges to create training programs that meet their workforce needs.
Congress need not move at glacial speed. Successful models may simply be copied or tweaked before implementation. And Congress need not burden taxpayers when the private sector may be an eager participant.