Will President Obama’s community college initiative, as described below, significantly improve access and outcomes for students who pursue higher education at community colleges?

In President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union, he declared that he wanted to “spread [the] idea of free community college . . . all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.”

The reasoning? Two out of every three jobs require higher education, and college should be affordable to all. Noodle expert Greg Johnson, CEO of Bottom Line, recently argued that Obama’s plan would not implement the structural changes necessary to make a meaningful impact on educational and employment outcomes for community college students.

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Answers

Jonathan Plucker, Professor and Parent

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I favor bold policy initiatives, so I would love to see this be attempted, at least on a smaller scale in a few different spots around the country to see how it works (most trials up to this point have been very limited). And I completely understand where it's coming from, both from a wow-is-college-getting-expensive perspective and based on research suggesting that money is a big (if not THE big) impediment to both enrolling in and completing a college degree. But like the other commentators, I worry about the details - not that they'll be deal-breakers, but that the one common characteristic of any policy is that it has unintended consequences. Sometimes those unexpected outcomes are positive, but most are usually negative. We need to have much more discussion about what the unintended consequences are, and how they can be addressed upfront.

Amanda Uhry, Founder and owner, Manhattan Private School Advisors (New York City)

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I don't know if it will and nor can anyone until this plan is implemented. My concerns are these: how far America is lagging behind many other countries in terms of public primary, secondary and college education and whether this is a bandaid as opposed to a full on "cure". Second, who is going to pay for this admirable concept? Tax-payers do not want to because they are financially stressed to the max. Finally, I agree with Greg Johnson in terms of benefit to risk ratios inherent to a very large plan like this.

Patricia F. Hess, Associate Director, Internship Quest; Adjunct professor, and author

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Greg Johnson makes some great points in his article. However, unless students are able to see the relevance of their classroom learning to their future they will continue to become discouraged and drop out. There is a way to address this challenge and it is not simply expecting this alignment between college and workforce to magically occur. High Schools have an important role to play in helping students discover what career opportunities are available in today’s world well before they choose a future course of study. Students who do an internship while they are a high school junior or senior get first hand insight into potential careers. Too often high school students do not know what they want to do or are not even aware of what is available in the real world. Internships help students try out a career. Internships help students decide what they may or may not want to do before committing to a program of study in a community college. High schools need to make these alignments with organizations in their community and establish internships that are real learning experiences for their students. A student who participates in an internship that is well structured with specific learning goals will be able to evaluate for himself whether a career area is right for him before embarking on a specific program in community college. If more and more high school students enter community college and demand career programs that will help them succeed in their chosen field, colleges will then build and strengthen their alignment with organizations. The high dropout rates in community college will not go away until our high school students know what they want as a student in a community college.

Marguerite Dennis, Higher Education Consultant

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I agree, in part, with Mr. Johnson's opinion. Unless community colleges partner with businesses to produce the jobs that match the degree or certificate, having a two year degree will not be meaningful. Also, unless community colleges partner with four year colleges and universities to transfer all of the community college credits, students will spend an extra one or two years in college. The devil is in the details.

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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Low and middle-income community college students would truly benefit from President Obama's proposed increase to the Pell Grant program (should Congress approve it later this year). The average qualifying student would receive an additional $1500 (approximately) for a third (summer) semester. This money wouldn't make a huge difference for the financial needs of those in schools with significantly higher price tags, but the community college student could make efficient use of it.

Dylan Ferniany, Ed.D. in Leadership, Policy, and Organizations

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From an academic standpoint, widening access to community college makes perfect sense. College cost is becoming astronomical, far beyond what many students can afford. Community college can be an excellent bridge for many students to move from high school into a trade or career and they can get the right credentials needed in half the time.

The concern is that what many get out of a four year university is much more than academic, it's social, and it's that social capital, the network, that helps young people access their first job and often many jobs following. So if we begin to lower expectations to make sure all kids are community-college ready, rather than four-year university ready I worry about lowering the bar for high school students. If students have the potential to attend a four year university and go on to post secondary education then we have every responsibility to prepare them for that. On the other hand, the option of community college could be the best option for a student who may have responsibilities at home or a very specific idea of what career they would like to enter and the credentials needed. At the end of the day, this work must get started in high school (or even earlier) so that students are prepared for the college experience they choose.

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