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A college education is becoming increasingly essential in the modern-day economy. While many jobs do not require a college degree or certificate, studies show that educational attainment correlates directly with higher earnings and lower unemployment rates. According to one study by Georgetown University, by 2018 two-thirds of all jobs will require at least some postsecondary training. In short, a high school diploma is simply not enough anymore, as today’s economy calls for workers with skills and training that require at least 14, not 12, years of formal education. A college education was once an added benefit; now it is a prerequisite.
Given the growing importance of higher education, President Obama’s call to eliminate community college tuition across the country is laudable. As two-year institutions that open access to postsecondary education, serve as a pathway to a four-year degree, and provide workforce development and skills training, community colleges are an essential component of the American education system. In particular, they offer traditionally underrepresented communities such as minority, low-income, and first-generation students a chance to pursue a college education.
For many of these students, tuition is a barrier to pursuing higher education, as the demands of term-time employment and other expenses interfere with school. Fortunately, programs like the President’s plan have had success in keeping students in school and in improving the high dropout rates at community colleges. One pilot program in New York City that the President cited in making his proposal led to a significant increase in graduation rates, with 57 percent of enrollees graduating in three years–an increase of 41 percent from the current 16 percent rate. If implemented, Obama’s plan could save students an average of $3,800 annually, no small sum for students struggling to pay for their education. In addition to saving students money and improving graduation rates, the Obama plan would also improve the employment prospects of students. In short, Obama’s proposal could take away the financial barrier that keeps many students from pursuing education beyond high school, and ensure that those students see the fruits of their educational labors.
Like all political creations, the Obama proposal is not perfect. New York City’s pilot program, for instance, provided funding for textbooks and commuting as well as tuition, costs that the President’s plan omits. Eligible low-income students will be able to use Pell Grant money to pay for those expenses, but they may still be left with significant sums to produce on their own. Moreover, the President’s proposal is not likely to pass a Republican Congress; despite its resemblance to an already implemented plan in Tennessee, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee have signaled their opposition.
Despite these flaws, however, President Obama’s plan has crucial symbolic significance, and has raised the subject of community college into the national spotlight, where it belongs. By directing the national conversation to community colleges, President Obama is taking a bold step in the direction of reforming American public education. In the State of the Union, the President said that community college should be “as free and universal in America as high school is today.” As Harvard students, we can only support such a vision.
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