BY GAIL O. MELLOW
President Obama’s proposal for two years of free community college for all Americans leaves behind the 20th-century concept that a high school degree is sufficient to have a middle class life. A huge leap toward reviving the notion of an American dream, America’s College Promise is a proposal to spend $60 billion over 10 years to make two years of community college the new standard in public education. While we’ve focused on inequity in K-12, as a nation we have ignored the reality that without a college degree, a viable economic future is nearly impossible. Without education beyond high school, wages are low and the ability to stay in the workforce is compromised.
At LaGuardia Community College, where I have the pleasure of serving as president, we seek to build and strengthen the middle class in our city. We do this for over 50,000 students and their families, fully recognizing that college is what’s needed in today’s world.
America’s College Promise is also historic in that it redefines the role of the federal government in higher education and recognizes that unless federal money is on the table, and used to entice state support, tuition will continue to rise, making it even harder to go to college at a time when employers increasingly require a degree. While community colleges currently educate half of the undergraduates in the U.S., they receive limited public support and are far outspent by private colleges.
LaGuardia is a good example of the necessity of community colleges. When the City University of New York’s new community college was founded in 1971, it grew out of the civil rights movement and was created to serve one of the city’s poorest areas in New York’s fastest growing borough of Queens. Not only would it open the doors of higher education to all New Yorkers, it would study urban problems and innovate educational practices, namely connecting students with work at local businesses. At the time, LaGuardia was free, but today, students continue to enroll at LaGuardia because of their desire to get a college education and transform their lives and the lives of their families.
Unfortunately, the challenges that community college students face reach far beyond paying their tuition. Many of our students are parents; most of them have part-time and full-time jobs.
We have students who travel over an hour to study at LaGuardia, and we’ve lost students simply because of their inability to pay for public transportation. We continue to fight the commonly held misperceptions about what community college students are capable of and what they can become, but we struggle to scale up the programs we innovate to help them. If we’re going to encourage even more students to come to community colleges, we’re going to need more money for the already insufficiently funded support, advising and interventions that we know work for at-risk students.
Time and again we see research proving that investing in public higher education is an investment in our workforce and economy, and yet public funding continues to decrease nationwide. Community colleges are a uniquely American invention — one that creates equality and drives our economy — and we should nurture it as such. As a nation, we are learning that we can only compete in a global knowledge economy with a diverse student population and workforce. It’s time to alter our policies to fit this reality. President Obama’s proposal for free community college is just the beginning of a critical conversation on a system that has too long been ignored.
Dr. Gail O. Mellow is president of LaGuardia Community College (of the City University of New York) and co-author of “Minding the Dream: The Process and Practice of the American Community College.”