You get a college degree! You get a college degree! EVERYONE GETS A COLLEGE DEGREE!

In a recent post for Utah Politico Hub, Gordon Jones wrote about President Obama’s proposal of subsidizing tuition for community college students. While it is easy to scream, “President Obama is giving away tuition,” one needs to look farther down the line to what the program actually is and the logistics involved.

First what this program isn’t: Wholesale free-for-all public education tuition at community colleges with no repayment necessary.

What the program is: Tuition help for people who may not be able to attend college and help provide job training, with GPA and post-educational work commitments after graduation.

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In his article, Jones writes: “Several million ill-prepared high school graduates will go to college.”

Many (if not all) community colleges are currently “open admissions” meaning anyone meeting a minimum baseline requirement is able to get in. Apply, take the entrance test, and pay the $40 non-refundable fee, and you’re in. This is the mission of Salt Lake Community College (SLCC). If you want an educational institution with high admissions standards, the state’s flagship university is the place for you. The University of Utah has a high admissions baseline, and it is increasing as more and more people move to attend.

Junior/community college (JUCO/CC) is designed exactly for students who are “ill-prepared” but need more training or an associate’s degree. However, the “several” students Jones highlights that drop the class after the withdrawal date is concerning, and with Jones I agree on this point. However, 60% percent of students who attend community college, transfer to full four-year university and will attain bachelor degrees.

Jones continues: “Increasing the number of students in four-year colleges means more instructors.”

The Obama plan does not provide tuition reductions for non-junior or community colleges. Basically, the plan is that the student has three years to finish an associate degree (typically two years to obtain). Students also will have to maintain at minimum of a 2.5 (C) or better grade point average. Right now approximately two-thirds of all students rely on federal aid to help fund college educations.

“Some students now going to four-year colleges will elect to start their college careers at community colleges instead,” says Jones.

Good. They should. When I decided to go back to school, I attended SLCC for two semesters, just to get back into the swing of being a student again, especially since my program was a vast departure from my previous program when I was first in college. It was brilliant. More students should do it. In fact, the community college to four-year university success rates are staggering from those who transfer mid JUCO/CC program with very low success rates, where as people who have completed their associate degree and transfer have much higher retention and success rates.

Jones also brought up the hypothetical of a University of Utah faculty member moving to SLCC. One can reasonably assume the number of instructors who would transfer to teach at a community college from a four-year university would be marginal. Adjunct instructors (who are part-time, non-tenure eligible employees) would possibly do this, but I don’t know of any associate professor or tenure track faculty would move to a community college from a research based position.

Expanding access is a good thing. For the student, the family of the student, and the communities in which they live. Expanding access with GPA and work-in-lieu of repayment programs seem to be a way to help a middle class that is struggling with a hand up, as opposed to a hand out. A hand out, is something that only one person or family benefits from. A hand up is something that will help someone temporarily, all the while helping the community around them in many different ways. Comparing this to SNAP, or “Obama Phones”  is a gross partisan misrepresentation.

Currently, any student, at any institution of higher education has access to student loans, These loans are sometimes complex, and convoluted so it is hard for some, to navigate the process. This proposal would help with that issue. With no income, or path to viability requirements however, this policy proposal makes the process easier not only to navigate the process, but helps to control the out-of-control cost of access to higher education.

When mentioning “ANY” institution of higher education, I include for-profit or “proprietary” educational institutions. We have seen the late night advertisements. What they don’t tell you is their programs are obscenely priced compared to a community college. These rates are causing the real problem with higher education inflation because these for-profit companies are using tax money and federal subsidies to report as corporate income.

For example: A for-profit institution of higher education in the Salt Lake City area offers an associate degree in computer information systems over four semesters for $41,196.00. The same program, over the same period, with credits that will transfer to any university in Utah at Salt Lake Community College is approximately $7,000.00. I, as a tax payer and a student, would be more apt to help give someone a hand up with tuition at SLCC as opposed to the proprietary institution charging almost six times as much as the community college.

A rising tide raises all ships. As more workers come into these skilled positions it increases the tax base, which helps our communities thrive, which in turn helps employers get what they need in more skilled workers to build their businesses. What is wrong with rewarding someone who wants to learn a skill, or get the ball rolling on academic endeavors? We could be helping the next CEO, business owner or scientist, all because we gave someone a hand up.

I, for one, applaud the president and his proposal. While not perfect, it is a good step for a discussion that needs to be had.

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