Free Community Colleges

In 2012, in the heat of a presidential election campaign, President Obama made the apparent mistake of wishing out loud that all of our nation’s children could have the opportunity to go to college. That would seem like a fairly innocent, “American as apple pie” kind of wish, but not in this highly divided nation, and certainly not in the midst of a political year. He was attacked by his opponents as a “snob” and an “elitist”—and colleges, by the way, were also attacked as being a flagrant waste of money.

So here we are, three years later. President Obama—re-elected despite his elitism—has turned his wish into a concrete proposal to make community colleges tuition-free throughout the nation. The basic outline includes a $60 billion investment over the next 10 years to cover tuition for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA. While Washington would pay for the majority of the costs—75 percent—the states that participate would cover the rest. The president projects that the program, if enacted by Congress—a very big “if” of course—as many as nine million students would benefit.

Naturally, this proposal has been greeted with skepticism; many political observers simply say it is dead-in-the-water given the general polarization in Washington. But this is really a big idea—a visionary idea—one that may have enough strength to influence the national conversation about the role of higher education today in America, its role in our globalized economy and in any attempt to reach equity for so many of our nation’s underserved populations. As one economic analyst said, “…nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy.”

A number of observers have pointed out that what the president really wants to do is make two years of college the norm for students today—the same way that four years of high school became the norm for American students at the start of the 20th century—a time when the country was rapidly evolving out of its agrarian roots. His wish—his vision—should come as no surprise. Throughout his presidency, he and Mrs. Obama have aggressively promoted higher education both through their thoughtful presentations and their on-the-ground programs. While the naysayers are already nit-picking details of the president’s plan (many of which have yet to be revealed), they are not—I am pleased to note—being vitriolic in the way that they were during the 2012 campaign. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunity and even legitimate reason, once the plan is fully unveiled, to debate its details. But I hope that it is a serious debate—one that does justice to the power of this vision—a vision that reinforces the optimism of our sometimes elusive American dream.

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