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POINT: President Obama’s call for tuition-free community college

Proposal underscores need, provides for educated workforce of future

    Illinois is home to 48 community colleges in 39 districts and has the third-largest community college system in the nation serving nearly 1 million residents each year in credit and non-credit courses. Illinois’ community colleges provide high-quality, accessible, cost-effective educational opportunities for the students and communities they serve. President Obama’s initiative, America’s College Promise, was announced January, and it proposes to provide a community college education tuition free to qualified students. The President recognizes the important role that community colleges play nationally in the higher education system and in workforce training and economic development.
IBJ Mar15 Page 04 Image 0001    Under the president’s proposal, students enrolled in baccalaureate transfer or career and technical programs and attending a community college at least half-time while maintaining a 2.5 GPA would be eligible for waived tuition. The federal government would contribute three-quarters of the average cost. Each participating state will cover the remaining costs. As part of America’s College Promise, the state must commit to reforms geared toward improved student outcomes. If approved by Congress, this program will provide a tremendous level of financial support for the community college system and the students it serves.
    Most importantly, the President’s proposal recognizes the vital role that community colleges play in meeting the demands for an educated and skilled workforce.
    By 2018, an estimated 62 percent of jobs will require an associate degree. Currently, Illinois community colleges are focused on reaching the state’s goal that 60 percent of adults (25-64 years of age) have earned a college degree or marketable credential by the year 2025. Between 2000 and 2012, Illinois community colleges increased the number of graduates by 57 percent statewide.
    While Illinois community colleges are on track to meet the state’s ambitious goal, one huge barrier exists. Many of the adults that need the degree or credential for employment do not have the ability to pay for the tuition. Free tuition programs that expand access to higher education will only further the state’s ability to reach out to first generation, low-income, minority, and adult students who are being underserved in today’s higher education system.
    The “typical” Illinois community college student is female, white, 27 years old, enrolled part-time, and preparing for transfer to a four-year institution. More than two-thirds of all minorities in Illinois public higher education attend community colleges, and nearly 15,000 students with disabilities and 62,000 students with limited English proficiency are served each year. The America’s College Promise program removes financial barriers and provides a pathway for college completion and economic security.
    I applaud the president’s proposal for committing not only to access but also completion and support for our students. The success of any promise program will rely in part on the availability of a good foundational system of support services so that students will be successful in their academic careers and complete their education in a timely manner. This includes working to ensure that students are ready for college when they come in the door and addressing the remedial education burden that too often slows student progress. Illinois has made commitments to increase college access for low-income students and to improve completion rates.
    This past December, I had the honor of joining college presidents and higher education leaders from across the country at The White House College Opportunity Day of Action to discuss strategies for increasing the number of college graduates and developing a workforce for the jobs of the 21st century. Illinois community colleges are dedicated to improving the transition of adult students and students who lack basic skills into college-level courses and developing additional career pathways leading to more industry based credentials being awarded. Community colleges are implementing real reforms in remedial education that are focused on rapidly placing students into college level courses. Community colleges have also committed to establishing a common understanding of college and career readiness and improving time-to-degree and completion rates of students entering college who are not college ready.
    The America’s College Promise of free community college tuition partnered with proved strategies to support student achievement and increase degree completion provide the critical support structures needed to ensure our state and nation have an educated workforce prepared for the jobs of the future.
    The promise of free community college tuition opens the door for students to pursue career and technical training or a more affordable path to a four-year degree. The benefits of free community college tuition will ripple throughout our community as business and industry benefit from an educated and competitive workforce and community college graduates realize increased earnings. A recent study of the economic impact of the Illinois community college system found that taking courses at an Illinois community college increases a student’s earnings 25.3 percent over pre-enrollment wages. Community college graduates realize even greater benefits and can expect a total lifetime earnings gain of over $570,000.
    While many questions remain unanswered, including how the state and federal governments would fund the costs of free community college tuition, I believe the president’s proposal underscores the role community colleges play in providing high-quality, low-cost education targeted toward the workforce needs of the future. A high school education alone is no longer sufficient.
    Karen Hunter Anderson is executive director of the Illinois Community College Board.

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