President Obama’s proposal in his State of the Union address for tuition-free community college could change millions of lives.
In my job, I fight to protect the funding for Illinois’ financial aid program, MAP. I hear stories from low-wage working women who want to earn a degree that would help them get better jobs so they can support themselves and their families.
So when I think about Obama’s plan for two years of free community college, I don’t think about whom it can help in the abstract.
I think about Elena, who spent 12 years working at a warehouse, scraping by on incredibly low wages and acting as the primary caretaker of her parents. After financial aid helped her graduate with her bachelor’s degree, she said, “I am filled with hope, because with the skills I’ve gained, the sky is the limit.”
I think of Jenny, who started college while living in a battered women’s shelter. She wants to earn her degree in radiology technology to get a job that will help her become self-sufficient and create a safe, stable life for herself and her family.
Too many people don’t realize that the average community college student is a grown woman like Elena or Jenny, hoping to change her life. The average community college student is a 29-year-old woman who attends school part time while working to support herself, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. She very well might be supporting her kids, too, since nearly one-third of community college students are parents.
And America’s prospective students often can’t afford tuition. Even though community college is cheap compared to many private institutions, its cost is a major barrier for low-wage workers who need an education to seek better jobs. More than two-thirds of adult students who drop out of college likely do so because they don’t have the money to continue, according to data from the Apollo Research Institute.
Our current financial aid programs aren’t big enough to meet the need, and they’re constantly threatened by budget cuts.
Obama’s proposal offers tuition-free community college for students who attend at least half time, keep their average above 2.5 and make steady progress toward a degree.
The plan represents the right direction for our country.
Two years of college doesn’t just benefit the student; it improves the lives of her family and her community. An associate degree means an average 27 percent increase in lifetime earnings over a high school graduate’s, according to the College Board’s 2013 report. It also means unemployment is much less likely than for a person with a high school diploma.
For our economy, it means 34 percent more in taxes paid. It means less reliance on other assistance programs. And it means healthier, stronger communities, since associate degree earners are more likely to vote, to volunteer and to spend time with their children.
What’s more, our economy is in desperate need of workers with such degrees. The National Skills Coalition’s data showed that in 2012, 54 percent of jobs in the United States required more than a high school diploma and less than a four-year degree.
Obama’s proposal is not perfect. Students at community colleges need strong guidance and counseling programs to help them progress toward their degrees. Many will need help with other expenses, such as transportation, child care, books and living costs. And many working parents, especially single moms, who will need to attend school less than half time will not be covered by this program.
Every person should have the chance to go to college. Low-wage working women like Elena and Jenny should be able to earn the degrees they need to get better jobs and more stable lives.
We can — and need — to do better. We owe it to Elena and Jenny, and we owe it to ourselves.