Kevin Connell: President Obama’s Free Community College Plan – Close, But No Cigar

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on January 23, 2015.

Free Community College? You heard him, ladies and gentlemen. In his State of the Union address to the nation, President Obama reiterated his proposal that would offer every single American the opportunity to earn a free community college education, should Congress choose to adopt it.

Over 50 years ago, on May 22, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a crowd of thousands at the University of Michigan, where he delivered one of the most influential speeches of the 20th century. Unveiling his “Great Society Program,” Johnson laid out a progressive agenda that still persists to this day. Issues concerning race and the environment, healthcare and welfare, transportation and housing: If there was a social justice dispute, this speech covered it. In his War on Poverty (this speech serving as the presumed declaration of war), Johnson made it abundantly clear that education was to serve as a fundamental avenue out of poverty. In his words, “Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.” Almost 51 years later, President Obama confronts the very same issue, carrying the torch for the underprivileged with his proposal to make a college education accessible to all who desire it.

While this proposal, now dubbed “America’s College Promise,” is admirable in its intentions and practical in its objectives, its lack of focus poses a serious threat to its successful implementation and outcome. To its credit, there are several sensible requirements that students must meet in order to remain eligible for this initiative. As White House resources state, “Students who attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college and make steady progress toward completing their program will have their tuition eliminated.” Under this initiative, community colleges will be expected to offer either “(1) academic programs that fully transfer to local public four-year colleges and universities … or (2) occupational training programs with high graduation rates and that lead to degrees and certificates that are in demand among employers.” This choice between certain employment and the unknown is what presents the fundamental flaw in the initiative of America’s College Promise.

If the American taxpayer is going to be responsible for funding this initiative, successful post-graduation performance of its students is essential. What do I mean by post-graduation performance? Job placement. Earnings potential. Contributing to higher productivity output with the skills learned at college. Providing additional tax revenue from higher wages as a professional that will be used to fund education for the next generation of college students.

The key to success for this program rests in the vital understanding that simply having a college degree does not guarantee success. The surge in college enrollment over the last several decades has saturated colleges and the job market alike, leaving many graduates with traditional four-year degrees unemployed and underemployed. This initiative, while admirable in its objective, might actually exacerbate this crisis by adding millions of new students to these statistics if not implemented carefully.

On the other side of this job market coin, recent reports suggest that there are actually growing job shortages in many technical fields. A lack of technical training in industries such as “information technology” and “technical healthcare support” is estimated to create a shortage of over five million workers by 2020. America’s College Promise initiative is the perfect solution to filling this shortage. By offering free certification programs that place graduates as professionals in well-paying jobs within a matter of months, we not only fill this technical job shortage, but we succeed in Johnson’s strategy to lift underprivileged people out of poverty.

To my understanding, a college degree that leads to unemployment or underemployment is not an “escape from poverty.” At best, it is temporary hope. If the initiative of America’s College Promise is to be successful in providing an “escape from poverty,” it must ensure the long-term job security and earnings potential of its graduates. To that end, this program should exclusively offer technical certificates and strong career placement services within a short window of time. This will not only offset concerns over funding with greater efficiency, but also will promote the fundamental mission of waging President Johnson’s War on Poverty in this century and beyond.

Follow Kevin Connell on Facebook and Twitter for more higher education news.

Cover photo: Future President Barack Obama in his college days. Source: http://bit.ly/1GH1KGl.

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