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By Haley Sweetland Edwards
January 9, 2015

President Obama announced Thursday a new proposal to cover the cost of two years of community college tuition for any and all American students who maintain good grades.

While the plan seemed radical to some—and others wondered how the U.S. government would pay for it—the idea of providing access to free higher education has gradually become a mainstream talking point among liberal and progressive intelligentsia in the last few years. Now that healthcare is off the table, the next big liberal agenda item appears to be universal higher ed.

The argument is essentially economic: there is a gaping chasm between the level of education the American workforce has versus the level it needs to qualify for the jobs of today, and of the future. That’s largely because hundreds of millions of working class Americans, who were raised in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and even ’90s, didn’t grow up with computers and didn’t get an advanced degree. Instead, they got manufacturing and factory jobs when they graduated from high school. But fast-forward to today and those manufacturing and factory jobs simply don’t exist anymore. The vast majority of jobs available in the current economy require at least associate’s degrees, and more often bachelor’s degrees—not to mention competency online.

It’s that economic reality that has lead people like Robert Shapiro, a former economic advisor for both Clinton and Obama, to suggest that community colleges should offer free, voluntary and regular Internet and information technology classes at night “to any adult in America” who wants it.

“There is a social responsibility and and a large aggregate economic benefit to upgrade all those skills,” Shapiro told TIME in an interview late last year. “And these are not skills for a particular profession; they are general purpose skills. And you could do it easily for under a billion dollars a year because the investment is already there. You’ve already got the computer labs, you’ve already got the computers. This a a traditional mission of the community colleges.”

William Galston, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former domestic policy advisor to Bill Clinton, has suggested that the U.S. government should come right out and create a nationwide online public university—the National Online University, he calls it—where anyone could get a degree, in their own time, for free.

Even conservative economists such as Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as John McCain’s chief economic policy adviser in 2008 and is now the head of the right-leaning think tank, American Action Forum, have argued that access to higher education (although not free) and reformed skills-trainings to Americans would be a boon for the economy.

The problems, he says, are twofold. One, who’s going to pay for all this free education? And two, how do you explain to lawmakers and taxpayers today that they’re not going to see the immediate effects of this investment?

“The big disconnect between the politics and the policy is the time scale,” he told TIME last year. “You go and talk to [policy] people and they say, ‘We gotta fix the K-12 education system, the higher education system…we have to create lifelong learning and genuine retraining programs.’ And that’s all true. But it won’t affect this core troubling economic phenomenon today.” Programs that provide 20-year-olds the skills they need to compete in the global marketplace are important, he said, “but you’re not going to see the effects of that until 2036.”

Obama’s announcement Thursday fell under immediate criticism from Congressional Republicans. Speaker of the House John Boehner’s spokesman dismissed it as “more like a talking point than a plan,” while Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate committee on education, decried creating a “new federal program.” Alexander suggested instead streamlining existing state programs.

“[I]nstead of creating a new federal program, the federal government can help in two ways. First, reduce federal paperwork for the ridiculous 108-question student aid application form which discourages 2 million Americans from applying for federal Pell grants that are already available to help pay community college tuition,” Alexander wrote in a statement. And second, pay for the millions of new Pell grants that will be awarded if states are able to “reduce federal paperwork” and therefore allow “students to use Pell grants year-round.”

On Thursday, the White House statement said its new plan would save the average community-college student $3,800 annually and benefit 9 million if fully realized.

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