It takes a community: Obama’s free college plan will need a broad coalition to become a reality

It takes a community: Obama’s free college plan
will need a broad coalition to become a reality

By Andre Perry

I’ll never forget the moments after my grandfather proudly dropped me off at Allegheny College in 1989, and I became one of the first in my family to attend college.

We stood by his 1987 Honda Accord as he gave me the classic “You’re an adult in college now,” speech. After Grandpa lectured me about personal responsibility and hard work (variations of talks I heard before), he reached deep in the pockets of his blue, pinstripe slacks. That was the moment for which I was waiting. I thought to myself, “Hit me off with a little loot.”

Grandpa pulled out a bankroll that needed three mail-carrier strength rubber bands to keep its neat, cylindrical form. You can imagine how wide my eyes opened as Grandpa started to peel away bills. The bills seemed to fall off the roll like autumn leaves. In the end, Grandpa gave me $50. (The education cost more than $18,000 a year).

Now Allegheny College is more than $50,000 a year in direct costs, and according to Kiplinger’s, a private financial advising company, Allegheny College is again included among the 100 “best values” in liberal arts colleges in the nation.

Attending Allegheny College was one of the wisest investments I ever made (the first op-ed I ever wrote was about diversity, for the school newspaper, the Campus), and yet I still have loan debt. My Pell grant only covered so much, and the lifestyle of most of the students who attended Allegheny took away my grandfather’s $50 gift in the first few days.

But if I didn’t have a quality college education, I would probably still be in Pittsburgh driving my grandfather’s Accord (great cars).

College isn’t supposed to make smart people poor. That’s why I stood and applauded Obama’s proposal to make the first two years of community college free, which will increase access for low-income students.

In the words of a low-income high school graduate, I shouted, “Free college.” It sounded as loud as the cheers we heard from low-income mothers almost two years ago. Remember the bellow of “Free pre-K” we heard from urban and rural America after Obama announced his plan for universal pre-K from the House of Representative chambers during his 2013 State of the Union Address?

And most mothers were left with no more than the same $50 my grandfather left me, because Congress couldn’t find the money

If Congress can find the money this time (a tall task), Obama’s plan would pay 75 percent of the tuition of students who attend a community college at least half-time and take credits that are transferable to a four-year institution. States would have to agree to pony-up the remaining 25 percent (a taller task), and colleges would have to institute evidenced based reforms to improve student outcomes (maybe the tallest task).

“Put simply, what I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who’s willing to work for it,” Obama said in a Facebook video.

Obama’s plan wouldn’t have helped me, but it’s a start toward having our educational system meet quality-of-life needs of the 21st century. The Pew Research Center found that the value of a college degree is increasing with time while the value of a high school diploma is depreciating. Today, 22 percent of Americans with a high school diploma only are living in poverty, compared with 7 percent of Baby Boomers who held a high school diploma only in 1979, when they were in their late 20s and early 30s.

The reality is that to live a middle-class lifestyle, at least two years of college is as necessary as high school. Consequently, we should think of the first two years of college as the 13th and 14th grades. We never think that everyone receives a grant in elementary and high school, but they do. Why not for college if it is as necessary?

In spite of seemingly non-partisan acknowledgement that universal pre-K is a worthy investment, Congress didn’t find the money. If we can’t find money for adorable babies, do you think we’ll find it for rusty adults? Obama’s latest proposal will receive the same kind of unfunded support if a new lobbying strategy isn’t employed.

We shouldn’t expect Congress put the money where the public’s mouth is. It’s time for disparate educational groups as well as civil rights organizations to move Congress to make universal pre-K and the first two years of college as accessible as elementary and high school.

The nature of our workforce demands a womb to tomb educational system – real lifelong learning. It will take the early childhood, K-12, and higher education lobbies to enjoin the support of civil rights groups and others to give the public what we want.

I’m calling for teachers unions and education-reform groups to rally their members and funders to lobby Congress to fund these “bookends” of an education. I’m calling for the Urban League, NAACP, Planned Parenthood and GLAD to issue joint statements demanding universal pre-K and free community college. Four-year institutions can’t be so self-interested that they don’t muster support for their community college brethren.

At some point, the education community should act like one. The need for universal pre-K and free community college can be the basis for a short-term convergence of interest.

For too long, disparate educational groups have fought selfishly for their own organizational survival. Consequently, we regularly cut off our noses to spite our faces. Education reformers and unions demonize each other, while all teachers and administrators struggle to meet the needs of every child. Democrats and the GOP stay fighting on vouchers and choice while we fail to provide quality public options. Four-year colleges give the side-eye to any support for community colleges.

There should be moments when all sects of education rally behind a common cause or enemy. And then, educators have to convince other organizations and voters to apply similar pressure.

Can’t we all just get along? Probably not. However, we should be able to agree that the bookends of pre-K and the first two years of college are as essential as elementary and secondary schooling. The proposal simply won’t get funding without a new, broad coalition of people who do not typically work together.

I loved my Grandpa (When he died, I looked in his mattress for that bankroll), but he shouldn’t have been responsible for subsidizing the education society demands me to have.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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