Free College Already Works

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama introduced a plan that would provide two free years of education at Community Colleges. Using systems already working in Chicago and the State of Tennessee as examples of success, his plan proposes paying three-quarters of the cost of educating someone who maintains a 2.5 GPA and makes progress toward completing the program. Basically, colleges have to offer the programs, and be involved in arrangements for the other 25% of the cost.

In his speech the President said that forty percent of U.S. students choose community colleges.

“By the end of this decade two of three jobs will require some higher education. And yet we live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s sure not smart for our future”

He described the plan as providing a debt-free way for someone to become ready for the new economy in fields such as coding, nursing and robotics.

The idea isn’t new. And we don’t have to wait for the federal or state governments to do anything to make it work.   Here’s a piece I saw more than a year ago on the effects that free higher education made on a city in Michigan. The Kalamazoo Promise offers 100% of the cost of education to 100% of the graduates of the school system there.

As the TV story says, the idea is spreading – it mentions Pittsburgh, which has made its own Pittsburgh Promise. It has also spread throughout Michigan to other colleges.

It works for the cities, the colleges,  the local businesses and the people.

The programs don’t pass along government grants, so there’s no need for politicians to get their fingers on it. There’s no political influence since all school graduates qualify.  Instead, it’s about money and workforce development – in most places, that’s a private sector duty. It’s about getting a workers who can go beyond the occupations available to those who have less education, smaller dreams, or fewer opportunities. It’s good for the town to be known as a place where people are ready for better lives. It’s good to be able to bring in new businesses looking for people to work for them. It’s good for the people who will actually have those newly available jobs .

The President’s approach has drawn criticism from the usual sources, of course. However, it’s worth asking those critics whether they would prefer to search for employees from a local, educated community or to import enough job-qualified people who can run their business. The answer would indicate the quality of the business as well as the position of that town on a colonial scale.

It would be interesting to see the results of just asking businesses if they would take part in such a program — outside of the government.


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