Rep. Esty: Pres. Obama's Community College Plan 'Bold And Important'

Jan 19, 2015

Credit 401(K)2013/Flickr

President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address before members of Congress and their guests tomorrow night. One of the proposals the president will make is two years of government-funded community college.

President Obama is expected to further detail the proposal, which he announced earlier this month via a video message aboard Air Force One.

“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,” President Obama said. “That’s right free for everybody who’s willing to work for it. It’s something that we can accomplish and it’s something that’ll train our workforce so that we can compete with anybody in the world.”  

The proposal would affect students attending at least half-time, maintaining a 2.5-grade point average and making progress toward a degree. According to Reuters, the idea would involve the Republican-controlled Congress passing legislation where the federal government could pay for 75 percent of tuition, with states picking up the rest. According to the White House, if all states sign on, it’s estimated 9 million students could save an annual average of $3,800 if attending full-time. It’s an idea Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat from Connecticut, says is bold and important.

“Is underscoring the critical role that community colleges have played and I think can play in insuring that every American has the opportunity to achieve the American dream,” Esty said. “It used to be that high school was sufficient. We know now that’s largely not true. We’re a globalized society and we need more skills. Community colleges offer that in an affordable way.”   

Berkshire Community College President Ellen Kennedy says the proposal could be a game changer for the nation.

“If more individuals  who feel they are not in a position to take on the debt or find the funds to support their pursuit of an education are able to enroll in a community college and begin that journey it would open up opportunities to go on to join the work world immediately or go on to complete a bachelors degree,” Kennedy said. “I think so many people could benefit from this, but of course we’re all waiting to hear more about the details of it would be funded.”

The funding question Kennedy brings up has also been asked by Congressional Republicans. The average annual cost of a two-year public college is nearly $3,400, according to The College Board. Not all college programs are expected to qualify for funding under President Obama’s proposal, however. Saying community colleges are able to respond to the needs of area employers, Esty believes supporting career paths in manufacturing fields should be part of the plan.

“Not all students who attend community college are necessarily going to receive a two-year degree,” Esty said. “I’ll use the example of Naugatuck [Valley] Community College where many of their students are receiving manufacturing certificates. These are certificate programs that be six months or one year programs. Their advanced manufacturing program, a one year certificate, has a 90 percent placement rate for jobs. Any college would be thrilled to have a 90 percent placement rate.”

Esty added community colleges offer the ability to retrain workers and partner with area companies. With the thought that as education becomes more prevalent, people will need more of it to remain competitive in the job market, Kennedy says an associate’s degree is the first major step toward a solid career.

“This could help people complete their associate’s degree or earn a certificate much more quickly,” Kennedy said. “Right now 2/3 of the students at Berkshire Community College are attending part-time so if more students could go full time and complete within two years they might finish faster and be able to either move on to a transfer institution or move into a new position in an involving economy here in Berkshire County or across the nation.”

President Obama is also expected to outline a mixed bag of tax increases on capital gains and tax credits for families with children. Congresswoman Esty says the tax code is too complex undermining the average American’s confidence in the system, while some have been able to see special benefits from it.

“I’ll be looking hard at the specifics and working with my colleagues to I hope get a fairer, simpler system that rewards work and that allows every American the opportunity to work hard, play by the rules and get ahead,” said Esty.

President Obama’s State of the Union address is set for 9 o’clock Tuesday night.