President Obama’s tuition-free community college for responsible students is a welcome proposal

In the U.S., every person has the opportunity to attend high school at no cost. This opportunity, first afforded to us nearly a century ago, is responsible for much of the economic growth and prosperity of this country and its citizenry.

President Barack Obama is proposing a bold new plan, America’s College Promise, which would offer all Americans the opportunity to attend college for the first years at no cost. This would have a major impact not only on our nation’s students, but also on two-year colleges across the country, including Cuyahoga Community College.

Partnership status

The president’s proposal would forge a partnership between local colleges, state and federal governments and students. It would waive tuition for students who are enrolled in high-quality programs — those that have shown promising outcome-based reforms to increase persistence and completion. Students would then have to attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 grade point average and make steady continuous progress toward a degree or certificate.

The federal government would cover 75 percent of the average cost to attend college, and states that choose to participate would be responsible to offset the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students. This program would mirror successful programs launched in Chicago and Tennessee.

For Tri-C and Northeast Ohio it would mean that individuals wanting to earn a college degree or certificate but who are not able to afford even Tri-C’s low tuition would have a chance to attend.

It would mean that middle-class students who aren’t eligible for Pell Grants could complete college without amassing debt that weighs down personal finances and stalls the growth of the region’s economy. Students who enter Tri-C and complete their associate’s degree before transferring to a four-year state institution would save an average of $13,000 on the cost of their education.

Benefits to the workforce

It would also mean that companies who require advanced training for their workers would find an expanded pool of potential employees from which to fill their ranks. The White House says that by 2020, nearly 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree, while 30 percent will require at least an associate’s degree.

The faculty and staff at Tri-C are working diligently to transform the student experience by developing programs and processes where students are engaged and can complete their education at a faster pace. As a partner in the president’s American Graduation Initiative, Tri-C has accepted the challenge of achieving an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020 and is well on its way to meeting the institutional goal of 4,500 students a year within the next five years.

The outcome of the America’s College Promise proposal is yet to be determined, but Tri-C is encouraged that the president understands the value of a community college education and its importance to our citizens and economy.

Alex Johnson, Ph.D., is president of Cuyahoga Community College. He focuses on strengthening the college’s 50-year mission of providing high-quality, accessible and affordable educational opportunities and services. Since becoming president in July 2013, he has promoted access, equity, success and completion for the nearly 60,000 credit and non-credit students who attend Tri-C’s eight campuses and centers throughout Greater Cleveland each year. Reach him at (216) 987-4851 or [email protected]