A Powerful Word

Gary S. May writes about why he thinks President Obama's plan for free community college could work and why he, as an engineering dean at a research university, backs it.

February 19, 2015

An experiment was conducted a few years back that offered participants the choice between a Lindt chocolate truffle and a Hershey’s Kiss. Each was available for an attractive price -- 15 cents for the truffle, a penny for the Kiss. Three out of four chose the truffle.

Then the researchers reduced the cost of each offering by a penny. The truffle was now 14 cents, the Kiss was free. Two out of three participants chose the Hershey’s Kiss. “Free” is a powerful word.

When President Obama unveiled a proposal last month to give every student in America the opportunity to attend community college free of charge, it naturally got our attention. From the kitchen table to the corridors of Congress, people were talking about it.

Essentially, the plan proposes that the federal government pay three-fourths of a student’s community college tuition if states agree to pay the remaining 25 percent. Community colleges must commit to taking steps to strengthen programs and increase graduation rates. Students must have skin in the game, too -- they must attend college at least half-time, while maintaining a minimum grade point average of 2.5.

Instantly, the plan ignited a debate over its merits. Some say the money shouldn’t be spent on tuition, but on removing obstacles that keep students from finishing community college and furthering their education. Others contend that the proposal is an important first step toward spurring college attendance and building bridges between two-year colleges and four-year institutions. And of course, countless other perspectives abound.

While the debate has yet to be resolved, it’s clear the president has already succeeded in one sense: he’s gotten the nation to pay attention to a critical and overlooked need.

The importance of a college education is hardly a new topic of conversation. The changing U.S. economy, rising competition for gainful employment and the growing complexity of a global society have made education a new national imperative. Yet the conversation has focused primarily on the importance of a four-year degree. Our money has followed this emphasis: public and private dollars are directed into four-year universities, which have become more difficult for students and parents to afford.

In this national dialogue, community colleges have been somewhat left behind. Their per-student expenditures lag well behind those at institutions offering four-year degrees and graduate education. Yet they enroll nearly half of all undergraduates in our country, providing a first step or a second chance toward a more rewarding life. Considering that the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, community colleges have never been more important to our nation’s future prosperity.

A 2013 Georgetown University study, “Failure to Launch,” illustrates why. The study found that only half of Americans in their late 20s are employed full-time, the lowest level since 1972. At the same time, “the increasing need for skill development after high school has delayed young adults’ careers.” This explains why the goalposts of individual sustainability keep moving. The average age for financial independence in the U.S. is now 30.

For a large cross section of our country, community colleges represent a way forward. But their role and value transcend a person’s ability to get ahead. They’re also crucial to America’s ability to compete in the world economy.

It is widely accepted that our nation needs to graduate significant numbers of professionals in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to ensure our future economic competitiveness. The critical role that community colleges play in achieving this goal is less known. The most recently compiled statistics from the National Science Foundation showed that 44 percent of the 126,000 men and women earning 4-year degrees in engineering attended community college at some point. For most, this was their first foray into higher education -- and they continued on. A National Student Clearinghouse Research Center study showed that nearly 75 percent of the students who earned an associate degree and then moved to a four‐year college graduated with a bachelor’s degree within four years of transferring.

Community college is also a particularly effective pathway for underrepresented minority STEM students. The 2006 National Survey of Recent College Graduates revealed that 64 percent of American Indians, 5 percent of African-Americans and 55 percent of Hispanic engineering B.S. and M.S. degree recipients attended community college before enrolling at a four-year college.

The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) has crafted a strategy to reinforce this pathway. The organization partners with four-year colleges and universities and provides transfer scholarships to students earning associate degrees in engineering-related fields. NACME is also part of a collaborative working to strengthen high school STEM education for underrepresented minorities. Currently, more than 30,000 students are enrolled in school-within-school Academies of Engineering to deepen their understanding of STEM areas.

All of these are reasons why President Obama’s plan deserves support. This is exactly the kind of thinking and practice our country needs to unlock the doors of opportunity for a new generation. The higher education enterprise and American society both stand to benefit in the long run. "Free" is indeed a powerful word. In considering and debating the president’s proposal, let’s free our minds of false assumption and open them to the possibility and potential of new approaches.


Gary May is dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.


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