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Expanding access to community college could be a game changer

President Obama's free-tuition proposal for two-year programs comes at a time when education costs continue to grow

Published: January 23, 2015 02:15 PM

The high cost of higher education is a huge burden for students and their families. And at a time when more jobs in today’s economy require at least some college experience, the rising prices of college—encompassing tuition, housing, food, books, transportation, and more—are affecting more Americans.

For years, educators have praised community colleges for providing specialized training for high-demand jobs, with flexible hours to meet most people's needs. That's captured the attention of some policymakers on both sides of the political aisle who want to make community college as free and universal as high school.

President Obama recently unveiled a proposal to provide two years of community college free for eligible students, working in partnership with the states. The proposal could benefit an estimated 9 million students, and a full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.

President Obama said the proposal was directly inspired by a new program launched in Tennessee by Governor Bill Haslam. That program, called Tennessee Promise, offers two years of tuition-free community or technical college to the state’s high school graduates, beginning with the class of 2015. 

At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we think this idea has great potential. It could go a long way toward lowering the cost of education for many Americans, opening doors for people to find greater opportunity without having to mortgage their futures.

Plus, this proposal could reduce the need for enormously expensive student loans; Americans now owe $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, a figure that's tripled in the last decade. And it would make community college a much more appealing alternative to some sketchy, for-profit education programs—the ones that aggressively promote good jobs, but only leave students with poor training, lousy job placement, and a mountain of bills.

The Tennessee program is just getting started, and the president’s proposal faces a long and winding path through Congress. There are many questions about how these programs will work—How much they will cost in the long run? What standards should community colleges be held to?—that will have to be addressed.

We think President Obama’s proposal and Tennessee Promise mark the beginning of a very important conversation about raising standards of education in America. You shouldn’t have to take on decades’ worth of debt to get the skills you need to make a living. Expanding access to community college could be a real game changer, making quality education a reality for millions of people while providing greater financial security for generations to come.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other articles in our Policy & Action series.

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