Free college helps build strong, globally competitive middle class

Erosion is a slow process that, if left unaddressed, eventually requires strong and immediate action to counteract.

In many ways, this is where public higher education finds itself today, something that President Obama and elected officials in Congress fully understand. The foundational bargain struck more than 50 years ago, that higher education is so important to the health and strength of society that it should be publicly supported and available to all citizens has been slowly eroding for years.

In January, President Obama used his State of Union address to reinforce the idea of making community college tuition free for many students. Earlier this week, legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to do just that: provide significant new funding that, in partnership with the states, would help all Americans get the education and training they need to live successful, fulfilling lives in a globally competitive world.

Shoreline Community College supports and applauds the efforts and is already using existing abilities to implement its own version of free college, the Shoreline Scholars program. Launched just this spring for qualifying students arriving for fall quarter 2015, Shoreline Scholars provides up to two years of free tuition. The program focuses on local students who have worked hard to achieve academic success in high school but don’t have the financial resources to attend.

Shoreline’s program aims at local students and families and will have significant and positive impacts on many lives. Moreover, Shoreline Scholars sets a goal for younger students by showing that hard work and achievement will be recognized and supported when it is their time to go to college.

These effects would be multiplied thousands of times by President Obama’s America’s College Promise proposal and the similar legislation introduced in Congress this week. However, while the scale is huge, the beauty of applying such a level of resources toward the mission of community and technical colleges is that the impact is local.

Shoreline Scholars and similar programs started by forward-thinking colleges across the country are lifting up their communities. The proposal to expand free tuition for community college is a national effort with local consequences.

And, America has seen it work before.

Out of the sacrifices made by service men and women in World War II came the GI Bill. Hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers parlayed the college benefit of the GI Bill into education and training that fueled an explosion of advancement, innovation and productivity, pushing the United States and the world farther and faster than ever before. It was a bold move, one that not only set our trajectory to the moon, but also a trajectory that charted a course to the middle-class for more Americans.

And, in Washington state we see the power of education now.

Each year, Washington’s community and technical college educate and train nearly 400,000 students for well-paying careers, to start along the path toward a four-year degree or update their skills and knowledge. During the recent economic downturn, community and technical college were flooded with students looking to find new ways to achieve their dreams.

President Obama’s proposal and the legislation recently introduced represent a dramatic swing in support for publicly funded higher education. Just as the GI Bill helped create the workforce for the 20th century, this new initiative in higher education can launch the workforce for the 21st century.

Shoreline, and the community and technical colleges in Washington and across the nation have proven for more than 50 years that they help build prosperity. These proposals are an investment in America.

Cheryl Roberts, doctor of education, is president of Shoreline Community College.

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