Free Community College Could Be a Game-Changer for Our Economic Future

Like many people, when I graduated from college I walked away with a degree, no idea where to find a job, and about $25,000 in student loan debt. This was 1999, and I was lucky: I found entry level work at a non-profit within two months and was earning a living wage (though not a generous one) before my student loan payments left their grace period. Even when job loss came, I was able to continue those payments, and, once I found a higher paying job, I then accelerated them. I hit my number one goal of paying off my loans before I had kids by exactly one month, sending that final check in four weeks before my first child was due.

I recognize now how lucky I was to at least start post-college employment before the recession truly hit, although a number of job losses in my first few years of work slowed down my path to financial stability. One thing I always think about, however, is how that first job I took wasn’t right for me, but was the job I jumped for in part because I knew that I had a clock ticking on waiting debt payments, and that putting those loans on hold would only create more debt down the road.

These days, I’m saving for my own children’s college funds, and working on a different goal: a plan to keep my kids as far away from student loans as possible, or keep their post school debt to a minimum, so that they can try to find work they love, versus just a job. Since I’ve left college, tuition in our nation’s institutions have exponentially increased, and a Bachelor’s degree no longer carries the heft it used to just 15 years prior.

Student loan debt has stopped today’s millennial generation from being able to buy homes or, in some cases, even move out from their own childhood bedrooms. It has forced them to work multiple low wage jobs unrelated to their degrees, and where they aren’t building skills, in an effort just to work down their debt. It has made them put families on hold. It has prevented them from buying purchases both big and little, bringing the entire economy to a slowdown. Meanwhile, the cost of college tuition has kept those without jobs out of work, unable to obtain new training for better paying, more available employment opportunities that they are currently not qualified to apply for.

That could all change with a new proposal from President Barack Obama. If passed by Congress, the President’s plan would allow anyone who attended a community college to have two years tuition-free, as long as he or she maintained a high enough GPA.

Such a program already exists in Tennessee, and could spread across the country, with federal funds to cover those costs that states are not able to come up with on their own. The two years of tuition could be enough to help some finish their half-fulfilled degrees, provide skills training, or transfer to a public college with basic credits in order to cut down the massive costs of those schools by allowing a student to graduate more quickly and incur less debt.

Of course, conservatives hate the idea. In an article at Forbes, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity claims that college students who don’t have some financial stake in their tuition don’t perform as well, that it is unfair to for-profit colleges that are being regulated due to their predatory nature, that it will just make community colleges more expensive and a host of other hand-wringing arguments against the possibility of making college accessible to all. One far right site even claims it’s the first step into creating mandatory enlistment in a socialist “Obama” army.

In reality, however, it is a noble step in both admitting that a college degree today is equivalent to what a high school degree was just a few decades ago, especially in today’s highly technical job market. College costs being out of reach for many families has increasingly contributed to the divide between the wealthy and the poor, with those of less economic means being unable to provide the educational opportunities that will alleviate the poverty cycle. In the meantime, those who can already afford education are less likely to need it in order to continue their path of prosperity, yet are the ones most likely to be able to participate and continue cycling up their earnings.

College used to not just be more affordable, but could be free or close to free just a generation or two ago. As Imani Gandy writes, California had free tuition for residents through their University system until the late 1960s, and City University in New York was free until the 1970s. It was only because it allowed those with less to fully educate themselves and participate actively in society in a socially conscious way that college as a right for all was diminished. “So basically, hella cheap education was fine and dandy until a bunch of hippies, beatniks, and uppity Black radicals had to go and ruin it for everyone by being socially conscious and smart,” Gandy writes.

President Obama’s plan isn’t radical, it’s just one tiny, fair step. Too bad even that will be far too much for the GOP majorities in Congress to handle.