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.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


ERIKA SOMLAI2 years ago


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Albert Einstine
Albert Einstine4 years ago

This is an amazing piece of information

Cindy Mayer
Cindy Mayer4 years ago

Education is a real luxury nowadays however it is so difficult to find your place in life without a degree. It is sad to think that there are so many young people, who could be so useful for their society, but still they do some miserable work to make the ends meet. At the same time there are students who work to pay for their study and just don’t have time for papers and assignments. Some of them will certainly get their diploma despite they constantly need qualified writers online as it is the only way to cope withal tasks.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

Nothing is free, someone has to pay for it, usually the tax-payers.

Jenny Sejansky
Jenny Sejansky4 years ago

Not that I believe for two seconds education is any concern of either of yours...but this would help the likes of you guys to become better informed individuals. Education would certainly bring you closer to earth...

Jenny Sejansky
Jenny Sejansky4 years ago

Steve N and Ron D- It seems YOU are the ones who don't "get it". You don't seem to mind cutting your own noses off to spite your faces. You'd cut the left arm off without thinking how you'll make it without the use of an entire arm. But lucky you, there's help available to you , should you need it at the lowest, most humiliating time of your lives. It will be there for you. YOU. I am sure you feel you are entitled to this money, as, after all, YOU put it there for that purpose. When you lose your job(s) or the job(s) you have aren't enough to cover the medical bills, isn't it nice to know somebody else has got your ass, even though you don't deserve the generosity because you either did not pay into it or bitched to high heaven enough for somebody to come along and cut it out from under YOU just before you needed it.
No, gentlemen, YOU don't "GET IT" at all. Too bad it is the likes of you who take interest in voting locally to see to it you no longer have to pay for the services YOU and YOURS may need sooner than you think.

Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

Well, if we're going to insist that people who have no money supply of their own have to pay for education so they can 'get a good paying job', then we'd better also insist that good jobs that pay enough to live on are supplied to everyone as well, FIRST. What? you mean that wouldn't be letting the free market work? And it's not fair to the predatory private education system? Seems backwards to me. If our only way to have money is thru jobs, then why isn't the private sector doing their job? Why isn't the government picking up the slack and making jobs? And unless you were born into 'old money', the money you've gained thru a job is technacaly money created by and supplied by the government as well. So if your not born into wealth, how did your minds get twisted around into believing that you had money that the government is taking from you? What has been taken from you is your time and life's energy, for which you have been given a portion of currency. And that you should be given to begin with just to take care of yourselves so you're well and eger enough to work and make more money. Then this issue of taxes would be pointless.Of course we need a well educated work force and there is NO EXCUSE for not paying for it directly from the treasury!

William Moorman
William Moorman4 years ago

Thank You