Educators react to Obama’s free community college proposal
U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled the early details on a federal plan to offer two years of community college for free to every student in the country last week.
“I think everybody understands that [higher education] is the key to success for our kids in the 21st century, and what we also understand is that it’s not just for kids — that everyone has an opportunity to better train themselves for better jobs and benefits,” he said in a video announcement preview of his upcoming State of the Union address.
Obama said the plan was meant to be “free for everyone who is willing to work for it.”
“It’s something we can accomplish and it is something that will train our workforce so we can compete with anywhere in the world,” he said.
The plan was inspired by similar programs in Tennessee and Chicago. During the Tennessee program’s first year, 90 percent of high school graduates applied for the program.
White House officials said that if all states participated in the program, which he called America’s College Promise, it is estimated that approximately 9 million people would benefit. Officials also estimated the program would cost approximately $60 billion over the first 10 years.
In order to qualify, students would need to attend community college at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 GPA, while working toward transferring to a four-year college or working on a two-year certificate.
The federal government would pay for 75 percent of the program, with the rest of the costs falling to the participating states. California Gov. Jerry Brown said he was optimistic about the opportunity, but he was not sure yet about the best way for California to pay its part.
Local high school officials said they were pleased to hear the president’s announcement at first blush.
“I was pretty excited about it because I see kids struggling every year, even to go to community college,” said Joyce Kleifield, executive director of The Harrison Trust at Los Angeles High School. “There aren’t that many types of scholarships available for community college so it’s a little more difficult for students.”
Kleifield said it could help because many students aren’t bad at school, they just aren’t the highest achievers — those students could benefit from starting their higher education at a community college.
“It’s a great place to start and get a lot of undergrad needs out of the way before the high price of upper education,” she said. “It’s the one thing that can give many of our kids an opportunity they might not have otherwise.”
Kleifield said she would estimate that approximately 80 percent of her school’s students would use the potential program.
“The majority of the kids we’re graduating go to a two-year college first, mainly because they can’t afford going to a four-year college,” she said. “Many just go straight to the workforce because they can’t even afford the community college.”
At Fairfax High School, assistant principal Leonard Choi said a free two years could definitely make a difference. He estimated that approximately 30-40 percent of his students go to community college after they graduate.
“I think it’s another great advantage, especially with four-year universities becoming more expensive,” he said. “This whole notion of career and college-ready — sometimes families can’t do four years or students have to shoot for two years because of extemporaneous circumstances.”
Choi said it wasn’t a recent trend, but he believes that there is less of a stigma around community colleges these days.
“Even our high-ranking students are very financially conscious,” he said. “Maybe even 10 percent of the top 25 students would go to community college.”
He said those students would rather go into an honors program at a community college that is less costly and closer to home, and then transfer to their preferred four-year institution.
There are still questions on funding the program, Kleifield said, but her early feelings on the program are positive. Choi said he’d be interested in how the program would reverberate in the K-12 system.
“It would be interesting in how we might change how we prepare our students,” he said.
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