A case for America’s College Promise

January 18, 2015

By Edna V. Baehre-Kolovani

I'm not the only community college president who cheered President Barack Obama's proposal to fund two years of community college for every qualified American who can maintain a C+ average. No matter the fate of "America's College Promise" in Congress, it's clear that the president grasps that America's future growth and resilience rely on a well-educated workforce.

But what I like most is that he has jump-started a long overdue discussion about how to make higher education more accessible to more students. Without the president's proposal, I doubt Tom Hanks would have thought to write an opinion piece in The New York Times about how his community college experience shaped him. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida appeared on "The Daily Show" Tuesday to promote his book, but he also made an eloquent case for community colleges.

As we continue this conversation, I'd like everyone to remember three points:

1) At a time when higher education is more important than ever, college enrollment is dropping. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that:

• 55 million job openings will exist between now 2020, most requiring at least some post-secondary education.

• the U.S. will fall short by 5 million workers with post-secondary education at the current production rate.

Meanwhile, overall enrollment in Virginia's community colleges, which peaked in 2011, has declined. Part of the reason is the economy. In bad times, community college enrollment soars. In good times, it drops, as people feel less compelled to train for new careers or polish their skills.

We're also bucking a demographic trend: The share of the population under age 18 dropped in 95 percent of U.S. counties between 2000 and 2010, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Fewer high school students equates to a smaller pool of college-age students.

America's College Promise would open college doors to more students, give them the opportunity to learn the skills they need to compete in the job market, and propel the nation's economy.

2) Money shouldn't be the major barrier to higher education.

The U.S. is, by far, the most expensive place in the world to go to college. The cost of college has surged more than 500 percent since 1985, according to Bloomberg. Free tuition is a concept embraced in most of Europe, including my native Germany, which often includes such perks as free transportation.

TCC is already a great value, with tuition and fees less than half that of the average at four-year schools in Virginia. Fifty-four percent of our students receive some form of financial aid, and even though we administered more than $110 million in grants and loans last year, our students struggle with the financial realities of college - which includes not only tuition but textbooks, transportation and child care.

The good news is that three out of five TCC students graduate without a single penny of debt, and those who do have debt are typically repaying it, leading to a default rate for TCC students that is well below the federal average.

I'm proud to say that TCC is addressing cost issues by expanding our textbook-free offerings - saving students thousands of dollars - and providing licensed child care in partnership with the YWCA South Hampton Roads. We will continue to do what we can to improve access, but America's College Promise would undoubtedly shift the equation in students' favor.

3) The "Promise" doesn't work if it cannibalizes Pell Grants.

My colleague Karen Stout, president of Montgomery County (Pa.) Community College, points out that the Pell Grant program reaches more than 35 percent of all community college students. Pell Grants, which are based on need, allow the least advantaged students to attend college. I agree with Stout's assessment that "any reductions in its funding would be a difficult price to pay for the Promise program."

If education is a priority for the United States, let's demonstrate it, as we did with the GI Bill. It is my hope that Congress won't reject the president's proposal out of hand but will use it as a springboard to meeting one of the greatest needs we have in the 21st century: attainable and affordable education.