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Debate over free community college worth having, leaders say

EDITOR’S NOTE: See our Point/Counterpoint on President Obama’s call for free community college
    President Obama’s call for free community college tuition for qualifying students likely won’t progress far with the current Congress, but it’s a debate that should take place, many educators say.
    Obama proposed the idea during his State of the Union speech in January, and it immediately set off a national conversation, with opponents rejecting the concept as too expensive and others defending it as too important not to consider.
    Lewis and Clark Community College President Dale Chapman says the idea ranks in significance with many things the federal and state governments have done to open access to education, from busing to preschool to special education.
    “From time to time we review where we are as a nation when it comes to educating the citizenry,” he said. “It’s a debate worth having.”
    Some argue that it would be unfair to subsidize community college for some people while others have traditionally paid for it on their own. But, as Chapman notes, government has long invested in programs considered to be for the common good.
    “We subsidize a lot of things. We subsidize the military. We subsidize farms and crops — all kinds of things, so it’s a matter of where you want to set your social policy.”
    One solution, he said, would be to take the best of various college “promise programs” and apply them to a national social policy. Such programs are in place around the country and allow individual donors to support selected college students with scholarship money, as long as they meet certain criteria, such as grades and residency.
    The state of Georgia has one of the longest-running promise programs at the university level, he noted.
    In neighboring Tennessee, residents, regardless of income, can attend community college and not have to pay tuition. The program is funded with state lottery funds up to $1,000 a year per student.
    Some Illinois community colleges have variants, Chapman said. He cited promise programs at Illinois Central in Peoria, Harper College in Palatine and Carl Sandberg Community College in Galesburg.
    Lewis and Clark has its own, unique kind of a program. It began with a decision by the late Calvin Whitlock to bequeath proceeds from his Jersey County farming operation to a scholarship program that bears his name. Today, 60 students from that county have access to full scholarships.
    “It’s kind of a promise program and it’s designed for a specific audience, but it is a perpetual fund,” Chapman said.
    The problem with promise programs is that the funds often run out along the way.
    Obama casts an educated workforce as akin to a national security issue, with the country having to do what’s necessary to make sure there is enough technical know-how to run the United States of the future.
    “Some of the estimates (of Obama’s proposal) are $35 to $50 billion, and that’s a lot of money. But look at a lot of other things that we spend that kind of money on. It’s a matter of what’s in the societal interest. I could argue that having a fit and well-educated workforce is as important to the national interest as a lot of other things we spend money on,” Chapman said.
    “I’m for open access for a wide footprint of people who have the ability to do this, and surrounding them with the best technology, best faculty and best facilities to clearly advantage them at the community college level, so that when they go out to work they are among the best and brightest. Or, if they go on to baccalaureate-level programs, they compete as well or better than anyone.”
    Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Chancellor Julie Furst-Bowe said she is in favor of policies that open access to higher education.
    “I think it would be a wonderful idea for access and affordability. Would it change our enrollment picture so much? It’s hard to say because a lot of our students do transfer in from the community colleges. Freshmen students are a relatively small percentage of our overall student body. Right now, the community colleges are a whole lot less expensive than we are, and it’s not like people are flocking to them and not coming to us.”
    The primary opponents, Chapman said, will be smaller, privately run colleges that compete for the same student demographic as publicly funded colleges and universities.
    “The ones who are going to be against this will be those whose ox is going to be gored,” Chapman said
    The head of LCCC said it’s unlikely the federal government would act on Obama’s request now, but he sees it happening perhaps through other circumstances.
    “Right now the federal government is looking at reauthorizing the Higher Education Act of 1965 (which gave birth to Pell Grants and many title programs). The debate over community college is likely to be front and center in discussion over the Higher Ed Act,” he said.
    “There is already a lot of discussion. What he’s done, he’s reframed the reality of social policy when it comes to higher ed. (Obama sees it as) trying to keep the American dream alive for everyone,” Chapman said.
    The idea of free community college is most significant, considering that such college is one of the more effective institutions that America has generated in providing education for all.
    “This is a great, bold move to create a dialogue,” he said.
    Change is inevitable in education and the approach to it, he said. At one time educators could barely suffer the notion of not teaching Latin. Many of the founders of this country were schooled in Latin prior to the famous Yale Report of 1828, which stressed more the need for coursework dealing with professions of the day, rather than “dead languages.” The influential report came at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
    At the time it was extremely controversial, he said.
    One hundred years ago when the first community colleges were formed, they were seen as being a means of getting people into trades or getting more people into four-year universities. Not everyone respected the junior college institution.
    American sociologist Jerome Karabel once wrote an article claiming that had community colleges not been invented, the classes might have had better upward mobility.
    “Universities (supposedly) would have been forced to create access at a level that community colleges took the pressure off of them not to do,” Chapman said. “I reject that idea, but I think it’s an interesting argument.”

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