Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Big Idea for a Big Problem

President Obama’s recent proposal to provide a free community college education to responsible students is a big idea. Like most transformative notions, time is needed to consider all the implications, but at a conceptual level the proposal is brilliant.

The notion of a free education through the first two years of community college holds the possibility of greatly accelerating the capacity of a trained workforce in this country. With better trained employees and better educated citizens, our employers and our society would greatly benefit – the economy would expand and perhaps the ever-expanding wealth gap might even begin to diminish. Because the concept is bold, it will most certainly prompt an important and necessary discussion on national priorities and values. We can have the highest skilled workforce in the world, but if our infrastructure is so poor that goods can’t be transported across modern transportation systems, those skilled employees are working in vain. We can be the most educated nation in the world, but if we have a national debt that cripples the economy, it won’t matter as much as it would otherwise. Yet President Obama’s proposal warrants great consideration and continued conversation.

Our country is founded on the rights of the individual and requires an educated citizenry to continue advancing the democratic principles of our republic and maintaining our economic vitality. President Obama provides a very relevant reference to the catalytic role that free public high school education played in the early 20th century toward powering tremendous growth and prosperity in America. It follows then that as society and the modern workplace become more complex and advanced, the public support for postsecondary education should increase accordingly for the 21st century.

It’s ironic that despite our country’s faith in the individual, our society too often adopts a “one size fits all” mentality. Despite nearly half of all college undergraduate students in America attending community colleges, the general expectation is that high school graduates should ideally go to four-year colleges or universities regardless of their interests or level of preparedness. Anything otherwise is considered an unfortunate deviation from societal expectations. This is a narrow understanding of success that has significant negative consequences. This proposal recognizes that we are all different and that we need options when it comes to education.

Community college admissions offices are the frontline of this societal disconnect where students of all ages try to plan a path to a better life. Too many 20-year-olds who were good students in high school but weren’t ready to leave home arrive at the door with $60,000 in debt, looking to put their lives back together after flunking out of a private college with astronomical tuition. Too many returning adults over 25 who couldn’t afford college arrive looking for a better life beyond hopping from one unskilled job to the next to support their family. The financial wreckage of our higher education system is most powerfully magnified by the fact that total student loan debt in this country (more than $1.2 trillion) now easily outpaces total credit card debt. It is seen by many to be the next economic bubble set to pop. In a country that prides itself on individual advancement, we made the critical catalyst – a college education – out of reach for far too many. Similar to our healthcare system, our higher education system is broken and needs to be fixed. Small tweaks aren’t going to cut it. Like anything that is broken, our higher education system needs to be reset.

Some may say the proposed $9 billion annual price tag is outrageous. However, we fought two wars recently in Iraq and Afghanistan with the expenditures justified as necessary to strengthen the resolve and secure the future of this country. Over the course of 11 years (roughly 4,000 days), we spent $1.497 trillion dollars ($372,851,806 daily) – about $9 billion every 24 days for 11 years. Providing a free community college education to American citizens will certainly strengthen the resolve and secure the future of our country as well, because more Americans will be armed with the knowledge and skills they need to meet the demands of our growing global economy.

The 25% financial obligation on the states requires a legislative deep breath to be sure, as few states have that kind of money visibly available in their budgets. However, just like our household budgets, with the right vision and planning, decisions can be made to support the family as needs change. It’s a matter of will and difficult choices, civil discourse, a willingness to compromise, and the establishment of shared priorities to make it happen.