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Columns, Opinions

Feldman ’15: Cutting the cost of college

Opinions Columnist
Monday, January 26, 2015

Colleges have drastically changed since their establishment. Originally, universities were primarily intended for affluent and educated men. At the time, the benefits colleges provided were non-essential. Few occupations were restricted to highly educated people, and many did not require any type of formal education.

Today, the need for higher-level education is unprecedented. While it is possible to find a job without a diploma, preference for the majority of jobs is given to those with a degree. It therefore becomes essential that every race, gender and socioeconomic class have the same opportunities to attend college and therefore to reach the same positions.

This is precisely the motivation behind President Obama’s proposed free community college program. As he announced in his State of the Union address, two out of three jobs in the United States now require some form of higher education. The proposal would pay for the first two years of a student’s community college experience as long as he or she maintained a GPA of 2.5 and were on pace either to graduate or to transfer to a four-year institution. If every state participates in the program, this would provide free tuition for approximately nine million students.

Universal college attendance could greatly benefit the United States by decreasing the educational gap. Many underfunded high schools are not able to properly prepare students to continue on to a higher level of education. Free community college could give students that opportunity outside of high school. For example, students without access to AP classes could take those courses after graduation and do so for free.

The plan also reaffirms the role of community college in the educational system. Currently, many students apply to the most renowned universities, regardless of price, because it will allow them to be more competitive job applicants. Though it might make sense financially to attend a community college, students are often repelled by the stigma of a lower quality education and future employment difficulty.

But with a free education, the risks of attending community college are diminished. If a student finds the education subpar, they will not have lost money in the process. The more students who take advantage of this opportunity, the more funding community colleges will receive and be able to invest in hiring higher quality faculty members. A larger percentage of students attending community colleges could thus eradicate the stigma surrounding them.

Supporting the community college plan could also lower the cost of private and public universities. Free community college could force four-year universities to price tuition more competitively to prevent students from choosing a less expensive alternative. Between 1978 and 2012, the cost of college increased twelvefold, and rising price tag has made it much more difficult for the working class to afford college. As tuition continues to rise, affording college will only become more difficult. More students will have to look for financial assistance, while those still ineligible will be forced to foot even more extravagant bills. By offering students two free years of community college and then allowing them to transfer to a four-year university, they have the opportunity to save half the price of tuition.

Though many will argue against increased federal and state spending, the government should encourage more citizens to pursue a higher level of education. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of education. The Campaign for Educational Equity found that an increased high school graduation rate could drastically reduce crime, and others have found a correlation between more education and health benefits like lower rates of obesity and smoking. These studies show correlation, not causation, but nonetheless they seem to show greater benefits of education than solely higher wages.

One of the most common arguments against the plan is that community college is already extremely affordable. Of course, the approximately $3,000 for community college annually is just a small fraction of tuition at private universities. But this is simply a comparison. While federal grants and scholarships cover much of the cost, many students still have difficulty covering the rest. One-third of community college students need a full-time job, and 75 percent are at least partially employed.

Regardless of existing opportunities, free community college increases accessibility. Obama’s plan would make college a right for students that they will continue to receive as long as they maintain certain performance standards. The current system treats education as a privilege that requires students to apply for grants, scholarships and possibly an additional job to even have the chance to enroll. Obama’s proposal would allow students to focus on what is important: their education.

For most parents, it is hard enough persuading their kids to want to go to school. If students actually want to attend college and are willing to work for it, they should have that opportunity. The plan for free community college is really an investment in America’s youth — an investment that could pay huge dividends for America’s future.

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