Obama’s right, higher education should be available to all

President Obama’s proposal to make community college tuition free for millions of Americans is expected to be front and center when he delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday evening. It is an issue that should resonate here in Michigan given the unique role our state has played in pioneering universal access to higher education.

2015 marks the tenth anniversary of the ground-breaking Kalamazoo Promise, the nation’s first universal, placed-based scholarship program. Graduates of that west Michigan community’s public schools are guaranteed scholarships that will cover the cost of tuition to any community college or state university in Michigan as well as to a number of private higher education institutions. Generous anonymous donors are footing the bill for those scholarships, but there is also a communitywide effort to make sure all students are prepared to make the most of this tremendous opportunity.

For the first time in our history, a sitting president has recognized we need to make a two year post-secondary degree as universally available as a high school diploma.

The Kalamazoo Promise inspired other communities across the country to create universal scholarships of their own. In 2009, Michigan became the first state to encourage the creation of local Promise programs through bipartisan legislation establishing Promise Zones in up to 10 communities. Today, eight of those designated communities are making community college tuition-free for all graduates of their local high schools. Several have created scholarships that can be used to attend four-year institutions as well.

These Michigan communities are motivated by the same economic reality that led to the President’s proposal ‒ a high school education no longer leads to a job that can support a family in a middle-class lifestyle. The kind of credential students will seek after high school includes everything from a technical certificate or journeyman’s card to an Ivy League PhD. A high school diploma should be a meaningful milestone on every student’s education journey, but it should no longer be any graduate’s final destination.

Today’s higher expectations

In the last century, as we moved from an agricultural to an industrial economy, high school graduation became the universal expectation of our education system. And with that expectation, high school was made free and accessible to all. Given the rapid pace of change in the 21st-Century economy, we can’t afford to spend decades sending students a confusing mixed message ‒ everyone needs education after high school but only those who can afford it are going to get it.

It is not just students of limited means who will suffer from that disconnect, we all will. Consider: 65 percent of the jobs in the United States will require education beyond high school by the end of this decade, but today fewer than 40 percent of Americans have post-secondary degrees. In Michigan, the situation is even worse. Only 38 percent of our residents have earned at least an associates degree. If we allow a skills and education gap of that magnitude to continue we will all pay the price in the form of slower economic growth and ever greater social inequality.

Given the atmosphere that now prevails in Washington, the odds are against the President’s plan becoming law anytime soon. But that political calculus is hardly the best way to measure its importance. Instead, we should see this as the watershed moment that it is. For the first time in our history, a sitting president has recognized we need to make a two year post-secondary degree as universally available as a high school diploma became in what we (non-coincidentally) called the American Century. If President Obama does not achieve that goal in his remaining two years in office, a future American president almost certainly will.

In the meantime, the work of expanding higher education opportunity at the community level will go forward in Michigan and in other states. In addition to Kalamazoo and the Michigan Promise Zone communities many school districts in our state are creating early college high schools that allow students to earn associate degrees tuition free along with their high school diplomas. The community leaders doing the hard work these innovative strategies require are steadily building the better educated Michigan we all desire.

An expanded federal role like the one the President is proposing won’t take the place of these community-based efforts, it will only enhance them. There’s plenty of room for involvement at the federal, state and local levels and for the private and nonprofit sectors. The challenge of providing universal access to a college education will remain a daunting one. But now, more than ever, it should be clear it is the right challenge for our communities and our country.

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Tue, 01/20/2015 - 10:06am
While I'm not sure what's the situation in other communities, and certainly appreciate the benefits and skills that can be gained, Grand Rapids (and I suspect most communities) already offer heavily subsidized tuition at the local CCs to the point where any area student can attend for a very minimal investment. So is your underlying point here is that even this minimal investment can't be supported by the benefits gained by an individual getting an associate's degree so now it has to be free?
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 4:38pm
It's not as subsidized or as low cost as you might think. All higher education in Germany is free and they appear to be doing very well with far fewer resources. The problem will still be finding jobs for all those better educated graduates which we cannot do now. That said... "Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education." Franklin D. Roosevelt
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 7:00pm
Joe, I believe if you check you'll find that CC runs in the $5k per year area (i just went through this on the paying side). This excludes classes taken while in high school making the effort cheaper yet. From my observation many of the courses offered do in fact lead to skills and careers that have employer demand assuming that is what the student really is seeking. But if they really want to study poli sci or histroy or such, regardless of grim job prospects, I do like your suggestion of them moving to Germany!
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 10:41am
In Lenawee County and Washtenaw County, high school students can enroll at the local ISDs/community colleges and nearly get an associate degree by the time they finish "high school". It does put the oneness on the student to plan their lives....not such a bad thing. My conclusion: we already spend enough money on education. Perhaps what needs to be reconsidered is the current "batch system" of education, where promotion from grade to grade or middle school to high school to post secondary has been traditionally defined by the process, rather than student achievement or need.
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 10:52am
Maybe the problem is that today's high school diploma has not nearly the value it had in the past because students are not taught responsibility, accountability and the skills to enter the work force. They are passed through the system whether or not they attain a level of proficiency to be promoted. I'm all for supporting higher education but it should promote the pursuit of degrees in areas where careers are available. The interest rate on student loans could be variable based on the degree program. If you go to medical or engineering school interest rate is 0.5%, law school is 10%. This way we get more doctors and engineers and less attorneys. The idea is to subsidize the areas society needs and discourage areas of abundance and limited opportunity.
Jeff Lauth
Wed, 01/21/2015 - 8:18am
Hardvark, this is a great concept and one worth pursuing. I cannot count the # of times yo see kids going into programs that are flooded with candidates. I am not saying that should not allow you to pursue your dream job but it should be something that a potential candidate is aware of before putting there time and effort into a career that may be harder to pursue due to the numbers. I like the idea of spreading the interest rate and encouraging secondary options which would be a close second to your first choice. Great comment, really made me think.
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 11:09am
How will the trades be handled under Obama's plan? I see plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, heating and cooling specialists, internet technicians, and many more occupations as being necessary to society, as well as those other areas taught in community college's today. Many CC's focus on medical, law enforcement, and fire fighting but do not have or have abandoned classes in metal working and house building. All are essential to a productive society.
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 12:37pm
As a parent, an educator, and someone who has worked in economic and community development, I believe the concept of free community college could be an important step to ensure the education our young adults. As the author admits, this might not get translated into policy immediately given the tenor of our current congress. But it should be clear that despite the reduced costs of attending a community college versus the cost of attending a university for the first two years of college, many still struggle to afford this. While there are subsidies and scholarships for various income level families and for specific fields of study, there are still barriers and obstacles for middle class parents who do not quality for any of these and it is still cold, hard cash out of the pocket. It is not "almost" free. And with many families still struggling with the economic recovery, this cash is hard to come by. In addition, community college is a sound place and fertile ground for the freshly graduated high schooler, or adult learners to return to college to explore areas they want to pursue for a career or a career change. Free tuition would allow these groups to explore their interests, learn new skills, study what future careers look promising and to decide on their ultimate paths while not being mired in student debt. Ultimately, money saved could be applied to completing a bachelor’s degree and contributing to a more educated and productive Michigan economy and workforce. It is a concept worth contemplating if we want to raise our educational standards in this state.
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 1:04pm
I'm willing to put my tax dollars toward such a scheme - and even extend it to four year universities and graduate degrees - provided certain stipulations are met. 1) The degree must be in an area that has a demand for workers that exceeds or meets the supply or requires the current import of foreign workers to meet supply. Tax dollars should not fund degrees that have no economic benefit to the student or country. 2) Criminal offenses will result in the forfeiture of some or all taxpayer support. The student is at college to earn a degree, not have four years of taxpayer-funded debauchery. 3) Private and parochial schools that have a proven record of preparing students for college receive government funding. It is asinine to offer free college to students who come unprepared because the traditional public and charter schools available to them are abysmal. This should not be a giveaway that provides little to no economic benefit to the country.
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 2:33pm
I believe this is a good idea, however there should be some caveats attached to the plan. Achieve an overall 3.00 or you will be required to pay a portion Drop out or fail and you pay back the cost. This should also apply to technical programs like welding, plumbing, etc. People need to realize there is no free lunch and therefore something is expected of you in return for the free tuition. I worked full time and had a family when I earned both my BS and MBA. Life can be tough but it is a lot tougher when you have no skills to bring to the market place.
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 3:02pm
The next financial buble to hit our economy will be caused by student loans that were not repaid as promised. Education is not free and there are costs associated with it. If we want free education then society must demand that the area of study undertaken will in fact benefit society. We have to many students now with degress that offer no overall benefit to society or which provide skills needed to boost our economy. Further, I'm not so sure that I buy into the idea that "everyone" deserves or should be rewarded with a "higher education." I believe we would be better served by having more inner city youths graduating from high school with basic reading and math skills. Now that is a benefit we could all strive to achieve.
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 5:31pm
This Mr. Wilbur like so many are a ‘one trick pony’. Every time it comes to education they want to spread the ‘magic fairy dust’ of other people’s money and dream that everyone who gets that money will become educated. It is disappointing that Mr. Wilbur like the others never makes any effort to talk about accountability for the spending. He only talks about his ‘dreams’ not about the reality. He seems to fail to understand that it is the student that decides whether they learn or not rather than the money. The student is much like a shopper, if they are uninterested in the product or service and don’t buy (don’t study) then there is no value to what is on sale. Simply making college free doesn’t make the student learn, and if the student doesn’t learn then what value does the taxpayer get for their money? Mr. Wilbur and the President can be pleased with themselves and can claim how their ‘good intentions’ changed the world, but just like a high school graduate that can’t read the diploma what value is there? In reality what is free is commonly wasted. People that make no sacrifice, make no investment of time and effort undervalue it, if not hold it in distain. And don’t be surprised if they don’t ask for more and more for free. And don’t stereotype this, it is true across the socio-economic spectrum. Think about the free gift bags that they wealthy clamor for at ‘Oscar’ time. As much as I value education, know many of the barriers to an education including cost, I also have seen enough of those who did not have that barrier to overcome fail to have enough interest in education to learn. Mr. Wilbur can spend all of his money he wants on this grand idea, but when it comes to spending other people’s money respect the taxpayers enough and what they have sacrificed for that money to make sure that there is an accountability system included with the spending.
John Q. Public
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 9:20pm
It's noteworthy that the state contribution to MPZs is left unsaid in the column. After the creators of a zone amass a critical financial core, they are eligible to use a tax increment financing mechanism by capturing half the increase in the state education tax in the zone. So, the money that was originally understood to be used for K-12 education is skimmed off to finance higher ed instead. Since the state education tax is deposited in the school aid fund for general use, every parent of K-12 students in the state indirectly finances promise zone scholarships for which, if they don't live in a zone, their own kids are not eligible. Michigan would do far better by eliminating the Byzantine schemes and just fund the school systems--both K-12 and 13-16--transparently.
Wed, 01/21/2015 - 1:12pm
i see the difference being in Kzoo the funding coming from willing donors vs Obama's plan forcibly taking tax dollars to likely do the same. Most likely any government run and funded program will full of waste and inefficiency.
Thu, 02/05/2015 - 12:33pm
What a joke, k-12 is underfunded.... we have 17 trillion in debt and now the utopians wish for free college educations! If you took advantage of K-12 you now have the tools to be a productive member of society, if you desire more then work to pay for it on your own. Enough of the freebies (that are not free)already.