White House Proposes Free Community College For Qualifying Students
With his announcement of a new federal initiative to render two years of community college tuition-free for millions of students, President Obama has opened up a welcome new front in the struggle to expand economic opportunity and pathways into the middle class. Under America's College Promise, the federal government would pay as much as 75 percent of tuition for students enrolled in qualifying half- or full-time postsecondary programs and maintaining a grade point average of 2.5 or higher. States would cover the remaining share of expenses.
The president's proposal represents an important recognition of the reality that in today's information economy, postsecondary educational attainment offers the surest path to a stable career at a family-supporting wage. Nationally, associates degree holders had an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent and averaged weekly earnings of $777 in 2013, compared to 7.5 percent and $651 for workers with a high school degree only. Combined with existing federal and state financial assistance efforts such as Pell Grants and New York's Tuition Assistance Program, America's College Promise could help to ensure that cost does not deter any young New Yorker from fulfilling their educational goals.
Significant though it is, cost is only one among multiple issues facing community colleges. Another significant challenge is academic readiness. To address this concern, JobsFirstNYC has supported the efforts of the Bronx Opportunity Network (BON). A collaboration of seven community-based organizations serving young adults in the South Bronx, the BON is a college bridge initiative that helps underprepared Bronx students to sharpen their academic skills and develop the personal attributes to enroll and succeed in college. Collectively, the BON partners have helped participants enroll and persist in college at rates far above the average across the CUNY system.
Another concern across the higher education landscape is the relevance of courses of study to labor market demand and career success. Happily, the new federal proposal covers not only community college programs articulating to four-year degrees, but also programs leading to certifications that employers demand. JobsFirstNYC conceptualized and continues to support the Young Adult Sectoral Employment Project (YASEP), through which a number of nonprofit organizations across the five boroughs have partnered with employers in high-demand industries such as transportation and information technology to custom-train and certify young New Yorkers for entry-level employment in those fields. To advance toward stable, middle-income positions, however, they will need to master higher-level skills of the sort signified by postsecondary certifications or degrees. The president's new proposal raises the hope that financial resources will be available to support their educational ambitions.
The program could yield even greater impact if extended to students whose competing work and family obligations limit them to attending college less than half-time. These students, particularly young adults, need financial, academic and social support to persist in and complete their studies no less than those able to devote more time to them. If the federal government cannot meet this need, Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo should explore local or state action to complement the president's proposal.
JobsFirstNYC will share updates on the America's College Promise program as more information becomes available.