President Obama’s call to make community college free was one of the most sweeping proposals in his State of the Union address. It was immediately controversial, with some alarmed by its expense, some praising its ambition, and some questioning the details. We’ll feature some arguments on both sides here on Grade Point. Here, two union advocates write that a similar program in New York has been a success.

Randi Weingarten is the head of the American Federation of Teachers. Sara Goldrick-Rab founded and directs the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a research laboratory aimed at making higher education more affordable. She is a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a member of AFT’s higher education policy council. Here’s their take:

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers (a union which includes people working in higher education, as well as K-12 teachers.) Photographer: John Harrington Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers (a union which includes people working in higher education, as well as K-12 teachers.) (John Harrington)

America’s College Promise proposal must work for students and faculty alike

In the 20th century, we made high school free. We sent a generation of GIs to college. We trained a competitive workforce. These tools gave working families what they needed to climb the ladder of opportunity.

 Today, our nation has changed. Our economy has changed. Technology and knowledge move at the speed of light. And working families need more tools. When two out of three jobs require some higher education, we need to aim higher and make college affordable and accessible to all.

Yet, while free public high school has become the expectation, affordable public college is still the exception. State disinvestment and soaring student debt have discouraged many aspiring students from attending college. And while we celebrate the handful of institutions that have cracked the code—making college affordable and accessible while raising student achievement—socio-economic barriers remain.

 While there is bipartisan agreement that college costs and rising debt are too high, the next generation of American workers needs more than rhetoric. They need action. President Obama’s proposal to make community college free for all hardworking students is action. If enacted, it could make more students’ dreams of postsecondary education come true, especially those of low- and middle-income students who face financial roadblocks.

In 1965, the original federal Higher Education Act was passed, as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, in order to give all citizens an affordable path to college. Fifty years later, that focus has been lost and student debt has soared to more than a trillion dollars, as students have borrowed in ever-increasing amounts to cover the price of attending college. Obama’s new plan restores and reshapes the HEA’s original commitment.

The boldness of Obama’s plan is in the way it combines supports with a financial aid system for students who would otherwise think college was out of reach for them. This program forges a new model of shared responsibility between state and federal governments for making community college free for all students. Consider that state budgets have cut funding for community colleges for years, always leaving students to pick up the financial slack. Now consider that this plan, in proving that multiple stakeholders can collaborate to make community college more affordable, could change that forever.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is the founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a research laboratory aimed at improving affordability and equitable outcomes in post-secondary education. She is an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a member of the American Federation of Teachers Higher Educational Policy Council. (Photographer: Tomas Uribe) Sara Goldrick-Rab is the founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a research laboratory aimed at improving affordability and equitable outcomes in post-secondary education. She is an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a member of the American Federation of Teachers Higher Educational Policy Council. (Tomas Uribe)

We’ve already seen how effective such a solution can be. Our colleagues at the City University of New York have successfully implemented the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs. In addition to covering tuition, which is often less than a quarter of the overall cost of attending community college, this program covers the cost of textbooks and transit, which are barriers that may seem small to some but loom large in the lives of the working poor.

More than the financial assistance promised, the program also offers special seminars and block scheduling so that students can keep their jobs while attending classes. In addition, dedicated advising and career services prepare students for the realities of the workforce; counselor-to-student ratios are noticeably smaller than those of traditional universities, which allows for meaningful and productive relationships and additional professional career guidance. Students also move through semesters in cohorts, so they can build relationships with classmates in their groups, even if they are not on campus all day.

We have seen the results: better semester-to-semester retention rates, more credits earned per student and higher graduation rates; all have improved dramatically. The return on investment is stunning—more than $205,000 in increased tax revenues and savings in social safety-net costs for a program cost of only $3,900 per student. It’s a winning strategy that needs to be scaled up. All students deserve this investment. Our country deserves this investment.

We are excited, too, that this investment in our students will bring a new focus on support for our members and colleagues—the professors and student service professionals who teach and care for our students. Over the years, community college faculty and staff members have struggled to serve students in a landscape of decreasing higher education investment. Pointing to state disinvestment, community college administrators have increasingly relied on poorly paid adjunct professors. The president’s plan has the potential to change not only the lives of millions of students, but also the careers of the underresourced and underappreciated professionals who work there.

The president said it clearly in his State of the Union: “Free community college is possible. I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.”

 Spreading that idea will take all of us—faculty, staff, students, union officials and, of course, state and federal policymakers. We know we must invest more in the next generation of American workers. And the president’s plan provides us with the opportunity to do just that. We need more than rhetoric. We need action.