By Bernie Rhinerson / FreeCollegeNow.Org
Ever since President Obama announced Americas College Promise, his plan to make community colleges tuition-free, the debate and conversation about making colleges free has been building with many productive ideas coming forward.
This month, the San Diego Community College District may have become the first community college district in the country to approve an endorsement resolution supporting these efforts to make a community college education more affordable. That is just one step of many that we need to take down the road to a future where a college education is expected, accessible and affordable for all young people in our country.
More than 100 years ago, America began to acknowledge that to be successful, our younger citizens needed more education. During the “high school movement” from 1910 to 1940, high schools were established to expand educational opportunities for students. In 1910, only 9% of 18-year-olds graduated from a secondary school. By 1940, 73% of high school age Americans were enrolled in a secondary school. That educational explosion has been credited with the success achieved by our country in the 20th century in the growth of the middle class, and scientific and technological achievements.
Now at the beginning of the 21st Century, America faces another educational challenge. A high school education is no longer sufficient to support more than a minimum wage job and most jobs in our society require higher-level skills gained in community college and four-year degree programs.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which compiles an annual collection of education statistics from around the industrialized world, the United States trails nearly all other industrialized nations when it comes to educational equality. OECD statistics show that America ranks near the bottom in the number of working-age citizens who have attained a higher level of education than their parents. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, only 20 percent of men and 27 percent of women, both out of school, have achieved a higher level of education than their parents.
Certainly one of the major obstacles to increasing educational attainment is the rapidly escalating cost of college. Tuition and fees have increased by as much as 70% in some states over the last five years. And there is now more than $1 trillion dollars of outstanding student loan debt in our country, a number that keeps growing with seven in 10 college seniors who graduated last year having student loan debt that averages $29,400 per borrower.
So are “Free College Tuition” policy solutions the answer? Yes, because if America can make an investment in reducing the cost of a higher education for all students, it will pay off economically and socially in the long term for our country. Over a lifetime, a person with a four-year degree will earn $471,00 more in income than someone with a high school education. A more educated and employed population will lead to greater income equality, reduced costs for income support programs and more tax revenues that can be used for public services.
The current discussions about free community college and the free college movement offers solutions in many varieties. This fall, 18,000 students started college as a part of the Tennessee Promise Scholarship Program. And, the State of Oregon recently passed its version of a College Promise to provide free community college to students in that state.
Here in California, we are well on the way to a free community college promise program since our state already provides fee/tuition waivers for low-income community college students. In the San Diego Community College District, more than 60% of our students benefited from the fee waiver program in 2014/15.
But we need to do more to make college accessible and affordable for all students. Community college students tend to be older and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and many need to work full and part-time jobs to support themselves while they complete their degree programs. A recent Brookings Institute study on student loans revealed that a substantial portion of student loan debt and default comes from community college students.
A California Promise Program could set a universal expectation for all high school students that they can afford college through a K-14 public education system. An investment in an expanded community college fee-waiver program would be a step toward that vision, helping even more community college students to enter college, complete degrees and successfully enter the workforce.
It is critical that we continue this national discussion about college affordability and college access and that a new national commitment be reached that changes our expectations and broadens our vision for educational attainment in our country. The momentum for the free college movement is growing.
Bernie Rhinerson is a Trustee on the San Diego Community College District Board. He is also an adjunct professor at San Diego State University and advocates for college access and college affordability.