America’s College Promise: A Ticket to the Middle Class

During last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama reiterated his commitment to make two years of community college free for all Americans who are willing to work hard toward graduation. Inspired by similar programs in Tennessee and Chicago, the President’s proposal—America’s College Promise—would allow students to complete a certificate, an associate’s degree or the first two years of a bachelor’s degree at no cost.

This proposal comes at a time when it’s never been more important to earn some form of higher education. In previous generations, a high school diploma was sufficient to secure a middle-class job and support a family. Today, however, going to college and earning a credential has become a prerequisite for joining the middle class. Labor market projections show this trend is only going to increase. By 2020, economists predict that nearly two thirds of jobs will require some level of education and training beyond high school.

Over the last three decades, however, the cost of earning a college degree has risen sharply. During this period, the tuition for in-state students at public, four-year colleges increased by more than 200 percent, and the charges at community colleges increased by 150 percent, even after taking inflation into account.

As a result, today’s college students have to take on much more debt than their parents’ generation to access middle-class jobs. All hard-working Americans should have the opportunity to attain the knowledge and skills they need for good, well-paying jobs without having to take on unmanageable debt.

Given the demands that individuals face in the job market today and our need as a country to have the most educated and competitive workforce in the world, we must make two years of college as free and universal as high school. America thrived in the 20th century in large part because the movement to make high school widely available allowed us to dramatically improve the education and skills of our population. But other countries have caught up with us, and some are passing us by. The time has come for America to once again “skill-up.”

Community colleges are the natural focus of this effort. They are the backbone of the U.S. higher education system, enrolling about 40 percent of all college students each year. As low-cost, open-access institutions, community colleges also serve a high percentage of low-income, first-generation, and older college students. Community colleges provide an affordable option for millions of Americans to start college and work toward a bachelor’s degree. Community colleges educate more African American and Hispanic undergraduate students than any other higher education segment. They also have strong partnerships with local and regional businesses to develop critical training programs to meet the skilled workforce needs of high-demand industries like nursing, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

As the President has said, this proposal will require everyone to do his or her part. Community colleges will need to offer high-quality programs and implement evidence-based reforms to increase the number of students who persist, graduate or transfer. Additionally, participating states must contribute matching funds, invest in higher education and training, and allocate a significant portion of funding based on performance, not enrollment alone.. And students must enroll at least on a half-time basis and maintain at least a 2.5 GPA so they can stay on track to graduate.

America’s College Promise will yield tremendous benefits to an estimated 9 million hard-working Americans who dream of earning a college degree and joining the middle class. Pamela Garcia, a recent graduate of Valencia College and the University of Central Florida, is someone who comes to mind. Pamela grew up in a low-income family with seven children and didn’t have many options to attend college. But her parents believed strongly in the value of education. So Pamela enrolled at Valencia College in Orlando, where she earned two associate’s degrees in electrical engineering technology, one with a specialization in electronics and another focused on laser and photonics. Based on her talent and strong work ethic, one of her professors recommended Pamela for an internship with a defense contractor – and she was subsequently hired for a job.

Pamela Garcia with Dr. Jill Biden. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Pamela Garcia with Dr. Jill Biden. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

While working, Pamela chose to continue her education and eventually earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Central Florida. For the past 18 months, Pamela has been employed as an electrical engineer in Melbourne, Florida and earns more than $60,000 a year. Pamela credits her success to the affordable and high-quality education she received at Valencia College. America’s College Promise will ensure more hard-working students like Pamela have access to these kinds of life-changing opportunities.

Ted Mitchell is Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.