A lot of people don’t have the luxury to see college as a place to “find yourself.” For them, college is primarily a means to one end — upward mobility.
So when President Obama announced that he would propose making community college free for a lot of folks, I applauded the initiative. Then my pessimism set in.
Given how sluggish things happen in Congress, I don’t hold out much hope that the policy will come to pass. Already, critics are crying about the cost of the program, which is a legitimate concern, considering the federal deficit.
Under Obama’s “America’s College Promise” proposal, modeled in part on new programs in Tennessee and Chicago, to get two free years of community college, students would have to attend at least half time, earn a 2.5 grade-point average and be on track to graduate on time.
If the proposal goes anywhere, the administration needs to make sure it still helps low-income students, many of whom already qualify for grants that cover their tuition, college access advocates say.
“Making community college tuition free for all students regardless of their income neither focuses resources on the students who need aid the most, nor addresses the bulk of the costs of attending community college since tuition charges comprise only one-fifth of the cost of attendance,” The Institute for College Access & Success said in a statement.
I agree. Let’s also concentrate funding on mentoring programs to boost graduation rates.
If nothing else, I hope Obama’s proposal will lead to more respect for community colleges. It may result in more families considering them as the starting point for a degree and not an extension of high school — or the 13th grade, as it’s still sometimes referred to.
I was talking to a group of parents about the cost of college and commending a friend whose daughter chose to attend a community college first before transferring to a four-year university.
As we debated the merits of starting at a community college, one mother immediately began to disparage the choice, albeit respectfully, repeating sentiments that some still hold — that community college is seen by potential employers as a path for folks who couldn’t get into a four-year school or that it’s the last resort.
When I think of community colleges, I think of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, known for his catchphrase “I don’t get no respect!”
A younger comedian, Michael Jr., has a routine about community college that brings the house down.
“Take somebody who goes to a nice school, let’s say the University of Southern California,” Michael Jr. begins the joke. “Ask them what school they go to. You get a nice quick answer. What school do you go to? ‘USC.’ … Ask somebody who goes to community college. You get a much longer response. What school do you go to? ‘Well, see right now, I’m going to get a couple of credits. … My financial aid supposed to come through then. My cousin going to let me use his books. I’m going to transfer.’”
It’s a funny routine because it’s the truth. Let’s stop being so snobbish.
“For millions of Americans, community colleges are essential pathways to the middle class because they’re local, they’re flexible,” Obama said during a speech at a community college in Tennessee. “They work for people who work full-time. They work for parents who have to raise kids full-time. They work for folks who have gone as far as their skills will take them and want to earn new ones, but don’t have the capacity to just suddenly go study for four years and not work. Community colleges work for veterans transitioning back into civilian life. Whether you’re the first in your family to go to college, or coming back to school after many years away, community colleges find a place for you. And you can get a great education.”
Right there. Let’s park on his last point.
We know that a high school diploma isn’t enough anymore for many jobs. But a traditional four-year, stay-on-campus university experience is out of range for a lot of families unless they take on thousands of dollars in debt.
If students can complete core subjects at a community college, that’s less they have to spend on their bachelor’s degree.
What’s not funny is that we can’t afford not to do something like what Obama is proposing. We have to be bold in our thinking to help people get the education, support and training they need to find employment that will help lift them and our economy.
Hear Michelle Singletary’s personal finance reports on www.npr.org. Readers may write to her c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington DC 20081.