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Free Community Colleges Badly Needed

President Obama's plan to make two years of community college as free and universal as high school is long overdue ("Obama Proposes Publicly Funded Community Colleges for All," The New York Times, Jan. 9).  It would provide countless high-school graduates with the rare opportunity to decide whether a bachelor's degree is worth the time, effort and cost, or whether a vocational certificate is a better choice.

I've written often before in this column that I don't believe college is for everyone.  I still believe that is a realistic opinion.  The problem is that until now too many students have been counseled to apply to a four-year college but then dropped out when they discovered that what they were required to study had little or no bearing on their future.  It was financially and psychologically painful.  In contrast, community colleges provide a mixture of academic and vocational courses in an environment that rewards teaching rather than research.  As a result, students have a chance to decide in a supportive environment what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

Although community colleges enroll nearly half of all undergraduates in this country, they still are out of reach for many students who could profit from them.  For example, at LaGuardia Community College in the New York City borough of Queens, more than two-thirds are from the lower half of the income distribution. The average tuition at public two-year colleges is about $3,300, which would seem like a firesale at four-year colleges. But it is still expensive for many community-college students. Critics argue that the average available student aid is $5,090, based on grants and tax benefits ("The Obama College Plan," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 12).  Yet how many students will qualify?

Although President Obama's plan is considered bold, it is actually in line with the history of tertiary education in this country. Community colleges, which were then called junior colleges in most states, started early in the 20th century as outgrowths of high schools. They slowly broke away to become separate institutions with their own governing board.  When I received my M.S in journalism from UCLA in June 1964, most people who wanted to teach in a junior college in California were required to have an appropriate teaching credential that included education courses as well as a master's degree.  

I think that community colleges already represent an extraordinary bargain. But I recognize the need to make tertiary education even more affordable. The $60 billion spent over the next decade to make it so is the right thing to do.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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