Free At Last, Free at Last?

Back in July 2014, President Obama introduced the American College initiative, piggy-backing the Healthcare and Education Reconciliation Act.  This initiative is meant to produce an additional 5 million graduates by 2020, who will have the skills and experience to join the most technically sophisticated workforce Americans have ever experienced   More recently, President Obama, joined by surprising support from Marco Rubio (R-FL), announced a vague plan to expand this initiative to include two free years of community college to students who maintain an average 2.5 GPA.  This would combine funding from both federal (75%) and state (25%) coffers.

This is an optimistic and exciting opportunity for all high school graduates.  Although there are currently several federal grant programs (Pell being the most well-known), many of these programs are unavailable to several demographics, mostly lower middle class families, who earn too much to qualify, however, not enough to afford higher education.    It will enable students from all races, genders, and creeds the same equal opportunity to excel and succeed within the same employment environment.  Socio-economic class distinctions would fall second to a good student with the aptitude and ambition to thrive. However, lacking the authority to issue an executive order, this will have to pass the new Republican-held legislature in order to become law.

Katy is a 19-year-old woman who is about to graduate a local community college with a 3.2 GPA.  She is currently paying $2117 per semester (reflective of a 12+ credit course load).  This does not include her books, her transportation, or her administrative fees, which exceed over $2000 per semester. Katy is currently enrolled in an Associates Program majoring in Liberal Arts, with hopes of transferring to a four-year university in the fall of 2015.  Katy comes from a household where the combined average income is approximately $70,000 annually.  This excludes her from any type of need-based financial assistance.  She works full-time at the local diner to afford her education.  She feels that if her tuition were federally subsidized, she would have more time to study, therefore increasing her chances of an academic scholarship to the four-year university of her choice, typically awarded to students with a 3.5 GPA.  For students like Katy, Obama’s initiative will be a welcome reprieve from the financial burden that often stymies further educational growth, and increases job possibilities upon receiving a Bachelor’s Degree.

Kevin is a 17 year high school senior who hasn’t given much thought to the his future other than which party to crash on Friday night. He comes from a household with a combined average income of $125,000. When asked about free community college, Kevin didn’t have much to say.  Of course, he thought that anything free was good, however, when told he would have to maintain the 2.5 GPA, he was disillusioned.  “An Associate’s Degree can’t get you a job any way,”  he said.  When asked what he planned to achieve beyond high school graduation, he stated that he planned on becoming a website contributor for an online gaming portal.  He had no idea how one achieved such a prestigious occupation, but figured he knew social media, so he was well qualified and looked forward to job offers in June.  A free Associates Degree does not entice Kevin to pursue higher education.

Free community college is a wonderful idea, when the participants enter with their own educational well-being in mind.  Some  say that college isn’t for everyone, while some argue that one cannot succeed without a two-year degree at the very least.    In Katy’s case, a government program would enable excellence.  With Kevin, the taxpayers may see a semester’s tuition spiral the drain while he underperforms.  How can America gauge a student’s success rate without testing the waters? Can we develop a maturity aptitude test measuring readiness for higher education?  While applauding President Obama’s altruistic plan, there are many factors to consider when giving away the educational farm.  It will be exciting to see the  long-term results, assuming this plan becomes law.

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