Lower tuition necessary

Earlier this year, President Obama introduced a plan “to make community college as free and universal as high school.”

This proposal, which generated both support and opposition, is important for two reasons.

One, it provides a partial answer to a pressing national problem: the price of higher education. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, young Americans list the cost of college and college debt as their number one financial challenge.

Two, it shines a light on a critical but under-appreciated part of our educational system: community colleges. These 1,100 institutions enroll 12.4 million students, 46 percent of the nation’s undergraduates. And they serve a diverse group including a disproportionate number of underrepresented minorities, those who cannot attend school full time for financial or family reasons, and those who need a second chance at schooling.

And the cost? Tuition at community colleges is about one-third that of public four-year colleges.

We recently took the temperature of these institutions through conversations with 10 community college presidents from six states. Here is what we found.

They are grateful to the president for focusing national attention on their work and three-part mission: to solve the skills gap, renew the middle class, and promote educational equity.

They contend that their colleges are well positioned to meet these demands because of their ties with local business and industry, and their deep roots in the community. They also point to their considerable track record in meeting many of their goals.

They take pride in the fact that their work has a major impact on advancing the education of traditionally underrepresented minorities, both male and female. Their efforts arise from the firm belief that a stable society is an equitable society.

They see their institutions as playing a pivotal role in the current economic turnaround and accounting, in no small measure, for the increase in good paying jobs for the middle class. Assuming continued funding, they see no diminishment of this role.

They do not believe Obama’s recent proposal for free community college has the support to become reality, particularly in this time of political gridlock. However, they do foresee financial increases from local, state and federal sources in the immediate future.

They are quick to underscore the vital importance of low-cost tuition to their work and outcomes.

They envision a significant opportunity for closer ties to their peers at four-year colleges and universities. Their combined efforts could lead to unprecedented opportunity for the nation’s traditional and non-traditional students

In 2012-2013, community colleges awarded 750,000 degrees and 450,000 certificates. These are not self-congratulatory slips of paper. They represent real skills given to real people who make real differences to our economy and our society.

Community colleges are not perfect. They need to improve a number of outcomes, including graduation rates. President Obama’s tuition proposal is not perfect. It needs further refinement including how the program will be funded.

But the idea of helping solve the nation’s education, economic and social problems though lower tuition at our two-year colleges is not only smart, it is necessary. We should not be debating the basic concept. We should be debating the best way to make it work.

Gene A. Budig is past president of three major state universities (Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas) and of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president at the College Board in New York City.