Obama wants community college to be “as free and universal” as high school

As predicted, US President Barack Obama discussed student privacy, early childcare, and free community college during his State of the Union address (and he left the controversial topic of No Child Left Behind and the future of standardized testing for another time, it seems).

In talking about his plan to provide two years of free community college to all Americans who earned a high enough GPA, Obama said universal access to some higher education is a necessity in today’s knowledge-based economy:

“America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world. But in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to do more. … I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.”

Part of the community college push would be to help students gain technical training and jobs in high-demand fields. Greater educational attainment does indeed reduce Americans’ chances of being unemployed.


And it is certainly true that going to community college for two years and saving that money can reduce student’s need to take on debt and encourage them to complete a bachelor’s at a four-year degree school. But currently only 16% of US community college students go on to get four-year degrees. (Of course, that number might increase if the first two years of learning were free.)

Those who earn an associate’s degree still make less than the median weekly earnings of Americans as a whole:


It’s also worth noting that the commitment of public funds to public education has eroded significantly in the US. When the University of California was founded in 1868, for example, it was based on the notion that a public education in the state should be free, yet now the US is at a place where public colleges get less money from states than they do from tuition.


In the end, though, this whole conversation is theoretical—at least for now, Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, told Quartz earlier this week. The current Republican Congress is very unlikely to approve this level of spending, she said, but the publicity Obama has given this idea could help a future Democratic candidate sell the idea.

And indeed, the Republican reaction to Obama’s proposals bolstered her point:

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