THE CAPITAL GAZETTE: ‘Free’ college worth debating

Career College Central Summary:

  • President Barack Obama deserves credit for bringing the conversation about access to higher education to a new level with his proposal to cover tuition for community college students. Until recently, the notion of "free college for all" was absent from the national agenda. But the idea is now generating interest among policymakers.
  • To be sure, Obama's plan has little chance of gaining traction in Congress. The heightened partisanship on Capitol Hill is a major reason, even though the White House based its initiative on a program promoted by Tennessee's Republican governor that will use lottery money to pay community college tuition for that state's graduating high school seniors. Concerns and questions raised by skeptics in the media and the higher education community about Obama's plan (especially by those outside two-year institutions) also will slow consideration of the concept.
  • But Obama's vision will set the stage for a robust debate about whether the government should guarantee a certain amount of education beyond high school for citizens, much as it does now with universal elementary and secondary schooling. I predict that it will, eventually.
  • By fits and starts, the trend toward widespread participation in higher education has been moving for more than a half-century. Before World War II, higher education was the preserve of men, whites and the wealthy. The passage of the G.I. Bill in 1944, motivated by concerns the economy would struggle to absorb the large number of returning veterans, opened college doors to millions. The adoption of Pell Grants in 1972 and subsequent student aid programs have further promoted educational access for countless low-income students. Obama's proposal marks another milestone in the ongoing discussion of whether higher education is primarily a private benefit or a public good — that is, whether the costs of higher education should be borne primarily by individuals or collectively by the taxpayers.
  • The country's projected workforce needs in the 21st century suggest those advocating the latter position have the stronger argument. Studies show that a large number of the jobs that will be created in coming decades will require some education beyond high school. Many of these positions, however, will not necessitate a bachelor's or graduate degree. Individuals who earn a community college credential, or even just complete a series of occupational courses, will contribute to the building of a vibrant economy. So it makes sense to begin any "free-college" plan at two-year institutions.

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