The Promise: Expanding Access to Community Colleges for the Public Good

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President Obama’s 2015, nearly New Year’s proposal, America’s College Promise, would offer free community college education to approximately 9 million students nationally. The Promise hinges on postsecondary academic performance and continuous progression towards degree completion. From the current national dialogue, it seems that the America’s College Promise proposal is an opportunity to examine the benefits versus costs of a community college education for most Americans. That is good.

No doubt, debates and perspectives on free community college programs will range from alarms to accolades depending on one’s frame of reference– potential student, politician, policy analyst, and so forth. As we know, President Obama announced the America College Promise at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee–where Governor Haslam announced Tennessee’s Promise last year that will be implemented with the 2015 entering community college class.

In the Tennessee Promise, the state agrees to pay the last dollar of community college tuition for two years for students who maintain at least a 2.5 GPA and satisfactory progress towards completion. What is possibly a very significant component of the Tennessee Promise proposal is that there will be mentors assigned to students, and students will be required to participate in community service. Mayor Rahm Emanuel of the City of Chicago has apparently also released a similar plan, the Chicago Star Scholarship, that promises free, last-dollar community college tuition for students who maintain a B average and qualify for college-level reading and math classes.

Why all the interest in assisting students to attend community colleges? Apparently the proposal for free community college goes back at least to 1947 and a commission’s report on higher education to President Harry Truman. Possibly, it is an idea whose time has come–or is past due. At any rate, the projected income of students who complete two years of college is estimated to be nearly a half a million dollars more, on average, in lifetime earnings than those without postsecondary education. Further, for supporters of these proposals, there is a projected benefit to society that out weighs costs. It will be good for America to have more educated citizens who are more appropriately prepared for current and future jobs in the workforce–a stronger economic attraction for businesses.

Yet, one theme that seems consistent in the various dialogues about free community college tuition is that such a benefit is not about to happen nationally for some time. No doubt, in the fall of 2015, and thereafter, the results of the Tennessee Promise and the Chicago Star Scholarships will be reviewed to determine if these promises are kept and do deliver the projected public good.

What, exactly, is so special about expanding access and affordability to community colleges? Like some of my higher education colleagues, I have been fortunate to earn tenure as an English instructor and serve as a dean, for a combined eight years, in two Chicago community colleges. It was at the community college that my love for teaching, and interacting with students, was born. Later, I earned the rank of full professor at a regional, best in the South, institution where I taught upper division courses–while also serving as an administrator.

Years later, as I recall the role community colleges played in educational opportunities, career readiness, and even in career exploration in my family, it occurred to me that we were actually a community college family. My husband earned one associate degree in art and started two others while working a full-time job. He used these years to explore career options, before completing a bachelor’s degree and, ultimately, a master’s degree in mass communication at major regional universities. He later worked as a graphic designer and taught communications in one community college and at three universities.

My late Mom earned her registered nursing degree from a community college; a degree that helped her buy, and pay for, our family’s house and support three children through college and many of life’s vicissitudes. Needless to say, pursuing higher education and delayed gratification became a cornerstone of our family world. Later in life, when Mom was in her early 60’s, she completed her B.S. degree at a university–just because it was a goal she was determined to attain. Mom stated she always enjoyed learning, and even though it took her about 6 years, she completed her baccalaureate degree while working as a nurse– after she had already worked as a registered nurse for several decades.

In my experiences as a young English composition instructor in a community college, I enjoyed interacting with the diverse students who saw a need for a college education in their lives. The Chicago community college that first introduced me to a career in higher education also introduced me to a range of international students, some who had already earned advanced degrees in their countries. Yet, when they immigrated to the United States, they needed to become more fluent in the English language and knowledgeable about American cultures. Interactions with these students broadened my global perspectives.

It would be hard to work in a community college, without admiring, or at least acknowledging, the thousands of students who seek degrees to gain specialized knowledge for a career, to change careers, or to increase their earning potential, all while juggling full or part-time jobs, families, and more complex lives than the more traditional undergraduates who are able to immerse themselves in the college lifestyle 24/7. Admittedly, there are also thousands of students who resemble traditional college students, but these students, for a variety of reasons chose a community college to save money, live at home, take a slower transition into the workforce or university environment, or other reasons too diverse to classify.

Perhaps the American community college is intricately linked to our lives as Americans similar to secondary education. Because we are a very diverse nation in which scientific and technological advances arrive in regular waves, an examination of the appeal and depth of community colleges seems appropriate to add to our national dialogue. Community colleges offer a range of citizens, or those seeking citizenship, an opportunity to 1) participate in a longer transition from secondary education to higher education; 2) engage in just in time learning for a new career, new job, or for knowledge; 3) schedule an educational experience around other life priorities such as families, full-time jobs, and other responsibilities; and 4) save money before transferring to a four-year college or university for higher degrees.

It is hard to drive past a community college without noticing its presence. Most community colleges resemble busy places (like shopping malls or good restaurants), and likewise, it is often hard to find a parking space because thousands of students are coming and going. If there is city or regional transportation, it also usually stops conveniently at the college. If you stand inside of a community college, some students will look like they just graduated from high school with their book bags, cell phones, and economy cars. These students might not have attained adequate academic preparation in secondary school, may not have confidence in their cognitive abilities, do not really know their interests, or are not really sure about the college experience–but they are there moving forward, expecting some clarification from the array of academic classes, certificate programs, and transfer options.

Other students know exactly why they are taking classes–they have a career or job plan that needs specialized knowledge, a credential, or certification such as a waste water operator certificate, emergency medical technician specifics, information technology game development skills, a paralegal certificate, and hundreds more. Many community colleges offer these programs in flexible terms, evenings, weekends, and many combinations of the aforementioned.

Possibly, community colleges are an essential component of our American lives similar to K-12 educational experiences. As we continue the dialogue on the benefits and costs of a free community college, hopefully, these examinations and discussions will include the breadth and depth of these institutions in family worlds.

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