President Obama’s community college plan: Ponder, but act too!

America has always been a nation which invests in its future. In the early 19th century, Congress funded roads, canals, and other transportation infrastructure to spur development and reduce the cost of goods and services. We subsidized railroads in the latter half of the 19th century, and funded what became known as the interstate highway system in much of the 20th century.

We are also concerned about the welfare of its people, having faith that an educated population results in a better citizenry and country. When tens of millions of American servicemen returned home from World War II, it was the GI Bill (formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act) which provided tuition assistance to attend college or obtain technical training. More than 7.5 million Americans took advantage of the GI Bill. (Its vestige is with us today in the tuition assistance which armed forces veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan employ for higher education.)

Although it had flaws, the GI Bill helped establish a sizable educated middle class and enabled the U.S. to emerge from the post-World War II era as the world’s leading economy for nearly 50 years. Notable is the fact that the G.I. Bill was a bipartisan effort, accomplished as a world war approached its end. Harry Colmery, then a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a former American Legion commander, was the principal author and advocate for the legislation. President Roosevelt signed it into law in late 1944.

In this context, President Obama is proposing to provide free higher education at community colleges across the U.S. It makes sense. If you haven’t heard about it, here’s a link to the video the White House released last week:

The long lens of history supports this type of investment in human capital which our country has made in the past. Concomitant with the GI Bill was the ascendancy of the U.S. system of higher education. Prior to the two World Wars of the 20th century, Europe was considered the center of collegiate learning. But by the ’60s, the United States led the world in the percentage of its population earning college degrees.

Somehow, that was expected in America. For hundreds of years, the U.S. has regarded higher education as a public good. Our nation believes that each generation would advance – intellectually, economically, culturally and socially – beyond the one before, and higher education institutions would help champion this advance. We were the “best and brightest” on the planet. We tamed the atom, broke the sound barrier, cured polio and other diseases, and sent humans to the moon and back.

Well, we’re not the best and brightest anymore. Depending upon the source, the U.S. now ranks between 15th and 20th in the world in the percentage of our adults obtaining a college degree. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development  (OECD) placed the U.S. 19th out of 28 countries in college completion in its “Education at a Glance” report, released in September 2014.

The OECD measures education investment and the performance of wealthier democracies. Higher education levels are associated with higher earnings (no surprise) but also with better health, more community engagement, and also more trust in governments, institutions and people.

Against this backdrop comes President Barack Obama’s proposal. It’s an intriguing one, and it should spur some deep intellectual analysis and spirited discussions at a critical time for our nation.


Our nation’s residents long for college completion. A late 2012 Lumina Foundation survey with the Gallup Poll showed that 97 percent of Americans believe it is important to have a certificate or degree beyond high school. In the same survey though, only 26 percent of respondents believe that the cost of higher education is affordable to anyone who needs it. And just 27 percent believe that the quality of higher education is worse today that it was in the past.

Here are some additional facts we – as a nation – should consider:

  • Public funding of higher education is declining dramatically. As recently as 1985, state and federal support provided more than 80 percent of revenues at public higher education institutions.  That percent is now below 60 percent nationally, and below 50 percent in many states.

higher ed two

  • Individual students are shouldering an ever-increasing percentage of college costs. The chart below show’s a “net revenue per student” figure which accentuates the fact that U.S. college students have now borrowed $1.2 TRILLION to cover higher education expenses. Students graduating with $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 in debt is quite common today.

higher ed one

  • The middle class is shrinking. Median household income “peaked” at just over $56,000 in 1999, and it has been going downward every year since then.

declining middle class


President Obama’s plan, as unveiled and expanded upon, is well worth deliberating. This writer would make suggestions for improvements. There should be economic means testing, and the concept of a payback (such as through community service) could move the plan from paper to reality.

Facing facts, the political gridlock in Washington, DC might make ANY compromise impossible in 2015. But let’s hope our nation’s political leaders give this proposal a try. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain when our nation invests in improving the educational attainment of its citizens. If we remain in the bottom third of democratic nations in our citizens’ college completion rate, that bodes ill  for our future.

NOTE – There are many good articles out there on this topic, but I want to draw your attention to Debbie Cochrane and her work at The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), a non-profit education advocacy program.

LINKS AND SOURCES — Read more at:

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You will be seeing more blogs on this site, either from me or from my students, in the weeks ahead. My family situation underwent a significant change around October 1, which affected my blogging output.  Perhaps I’ll address this further in a future post.

Finally — Please do share this posting.  The greater the discussion about the idea of free community college and the need for our nation to improve its college completion rate, the better.

16 Responses to President Obama’s community college plan: Ponder, but act too!

  1. Cindy Francis says:

    The idea of two years free tuition for community college sounds like a great idea. I read where Obama’s plan /funding would apply before the Pell grant which does cover most of your college expenses . He says well, talks about the Tennessee program and how they’re going to implement a plan for the free college in their state using lottery money. That sounds great to me, but this should to me be more of a state issue than a federal issue. Where is he going to get the money for this program ? it sounds more to me like a Trojan Horse.

    • jkerezy says:

      Cindy — You raise good points. I believe a means test and a service (payback) component would make this proposal better. Additionally, allowing individual states to “opt in” would be preferable to any federal mandate. Tennessee and California might be very happy with their current plans, for example, and not want to go into any federal plan.

    • Tim Francis says:

      Obama intends on raising taxes to pay for this, he will tax those who have money saved in a special fund, so it is his spread the wealth approach, in other words Cindy, if you have ten dollars saved up for college, Obama will take a portion of your money and give it to someone else to help pay for there education. You and I agree on the lottery issue, which is what said in 74 not 75 like I thought. The proceeds from the lottery were to be used for education.

  2. I agree with Cindy. It seems like in todays job market that some jobs (in order to advance) require a Bachelors for minimum education or training in the job requirements. I think instead of “free education” that if you are in a field like mine (information technology) where some jobs do require you to advance to the next level to receive a higher paying job or require some training especially in business that the company should pay or assist in paying for college. If I remember correctly when George W. Bush was serving his last term, the biggest problem the US was having was illegal immigration (from Mexico) which caused job loses and if this plan for “free education” falls through, we could have that problem again and it wouldn’t be fair to the citizens like myself who were born here and those who have established their citizenship. Honestly, I wouldn’t want history to repeat itself.

    • jkerezy says:

      Jeremy, You raise good points. There is no “one size fits all” solution to the fact that our nation is declining compared to other democracies in the percentage of students graduating from college, and that — in my humble opinion — is a bigger issue than job losses through immigration.
      As you note, “free education” really isn’t free. I believe that both a means test and a payback provision (such as community service) should be part/parcel of any program providing “free” community college education.
      Additionally, your point about the employer helping to cover advancements is well taken. The company benefits by having a better educated employee, so it should be willing to contribute. In reality, many already do so. Wouldn’t want to see those company-provided benefits disappear (as they have in the case of some health care plans, sadly).

    • The president’s proposal to provide free community college is a start, and a very good one for that matter. If anything I feel as if the president should take this momentum and ‘run with it’ and propose a bill lowering 4-year institution bills. I hear in places like Texas, you can do volunteer work to help cut those bills down ( Think of what the rest of the country could do! Think of the people who started out in school and the dropped out due to high student loans and just getting drowned. There’s a big handful of bright potential there as well who can’t really shine because school is just too much financially.

      Then again, an issue such as illegal immigration shouldn’t discourage one from getting the career that they desire. And Jeremy’s right, I wouldn’t want history to repeat itself in that aspect either. Not just from Mexico but other countries as well.

      • jkerezy says:

        You raise some very good points Lauren. “Lowering” the cost of college education is a different (and even more complicated) topic.

        The “volunteer to lower your debt” concept is both a good one, and the other side of the same “community service” coin I discussed.

        I’m not ignoring Jeremy and your comments about immigration, it’s just too difficult to delve into at the same time as the POTUS’ community college proposal. We all know that vast numbers of immigrants (irrespective of status) received higher education at a community college.

  3. Tim Francis says:

    I have to say, I’m not in favor of this two years free college tuition. I do not see how this will be free, where will the money come from ? What I see is another way for this administration to extract more money from the American people. The only way this can be paid for is to raise taxes. If you want to allow more to be able to attend school on an affordable basis, then why not just increase the Pell Grant ? I see this as a way to bring illegal immigrants into our colleges. If the system isn’t broke, don’t fix it. The State of Ohio has the State Lottery which when started in I believe 1975, the proceeds were to be used for education. If this is the case then funding for colleges should be available. I do not believe this is going to work, it’s going to create a lot of controversy.

    • jkerezy says:

      Jeremy — We’d both agree from our experiences that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Like many other states, Ohio began its lottery 40+ years ago supposedly as a way to help fund public education. It was 23 years after that the Ohio Supreme Court ruled our state’s funding system unconstitutional. Now, 18 years later, we are still awaiting a resolution to that one!

      Do note that I included means testing and some payback (in some form of community service) in my blog. This will cost money, and that money comes from us — the taxpayers — in one form or another. If you receive something “for free,” the least you should do is pay it forward though community service, IMHO.

  4. Jazmine Frazier says:

    I enjoyed reading this blog, you made many valid points. However, its seems Obama’s proposal will just make an associates degree on the same level as an high school diploma. If anything we should just expand K-12 to K-14. I also don’t see the difference from Pell grants. Majority of full time community college students can receive Pell grants which covers full tuition. Obama should just provide free text books and supplies to all community college students or allow students with student debt to file bankruptcy.

    • jkerezy says:

      Thanks Jazmine for your comments. There is a “bigger” issue here IMHO — Should the U.S. remain a K-12 nation, or are we going to expand our educational horizons beyond and aspire to be a K-16 nation which wishes to have the majority of its residents also earn a college degree? There are many good blogs out there which discuss the Pell grant/free community college ramifications of the POTUS’ proposal, and your statement that the majority of FULL-TIME (emphasis added) students can receive Pell grants is correct. A higher percentage of community college students’ educational expenses are in textbooks and transportation costs than many might realize.

      Bankruptcy? Let’s not go there today. It’s shameful in my mind that we have a nation which would allow college students to accumulate so much debt that bankruptcy becomes a preferred way out over getting a higher-paying job and eliminating the student loans.

  5. Naizhjay M says:

    Wouldn’t this lead to tax increases? If so, how will that benefit others? The wealthy will still be fine, but what about the indivduals of lower social class; especially since the middle class is beginning to dwindle? Wouldn’t that make it harder for those indivduals?

    • jkerezy says:

      Yes Naizhjay, somehow taxes would have to go up in the short-term, or the government would have to cut funding somewhere else, to fund a proposal such as this one. But it this proposal helped, say, 5 million people to have jobs paying, say, $50,000 to $75,000 per year as a result of their education, the federal taxes those 5 million would pay would provide a long-term benefit far exceeding the cost. Those 5 million people would also buy homes, cars, etc., making greater contributions to the economy.

      Thanks for reposting, by the way!

  6. Barb bloom says:

    Education beyond high school is both a personal decision and a decision based on environmental factors. I don’t believe more government intervention will be good:
    1. Drive the burden of cost to the middle class shoulders.
    2. Put a lot of people that are not college material into the higher education syatem

    • Barb bloom says:

      3. Devalue the education itself, and increase supply of higher educated system into an employment environment that is shrinking, being outsourced or being made obsolete by the rapid advancement of technology.

  7. Kennitra L. Moore says:

    The idea of a free education does seem great in a perfect world. Especially for those of us who have to rely mostly on student loans that we will have to someday spend the rest of our lives paying back due to the interests rates that continue to build while we finish our education. However, like so many others, I too am concerned at how this will be funded and how it will affect us as taxpayers. I would also like to know that if free education is given, how will this affect the job market in the years to come? If a two year education is offered, will more jobs out there require people to have at least a two year degree? This would probably make it hard for people who choose not to attend college to find a job. I think this would really widen the gap between the working class and the poor.

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