Community College: New & Free

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Heads Up America — the awareness campaign for President Obama’s College Promise initiative — is being celebrated on community college campuses this week.

Here at Cities of Promise, we have pulled together a list of two-year college programs which are already in place to provide tuition assistance for its local student body.

Two-year colleges have been around since 1901, when Joliet Junior College in Illinois became a public college offering two years of programming. And now, envisioning college of tomorrow, U.S. News reports that 20 percent of the student bodies at some colleges already have bachelor’s degrees and are adding important job skills for the future.

The roster is deep. Among community college attendees have been astronaut Eileen Collins, businessmen Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, George Lucas and Ross Perot, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Emmy Award winner Jim Lehrer, baseball Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Nolan Ryan, funnymen Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal, singers Salt-N-Pepa, Faith Hill and Queen Latifah and an array of actors which include Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Tom Hanks and Gabrielle Union.

In explaining the history of community college, Time Magazine’s Sean Trainor recently wrote:

Clamoring for both physical and economic access to college learning at a moment when advanced education was becoming key to social mobility (sound familiar?), Americans of a populist persuasion were responsible for the egalitarian streak of the junior colleges that opened beginning in 1901.

Inexpensive, often publically funded, and open to a wider cross-section of Americans than many of their four-year counterparts, these junior colleges were celebrated as “people’s colleges.” Though a far cry from full inclusivity, these male-dominated, majority-white schools nevertheless catered to a broader swath of working-class Americans than nearly any other contemporary educational institution.

Cities of Promise stands in support of our nation’s community colleges and the Heads Up America movement.

Heads Up America: The Focus On Affordability Just Got Real

It’s an audacious plan — to basically change K-12 public education to K-14 — but President Barack Obama doubled down on his Heads Up America proposal of free community college last week. He first broached the American College Promise in January in his State of the Union address, but it was clear that the odds of a successful Congressional act to address a new $60 billion educational investment would be long. A Hail Mary pass plus a two-point conversion long.

But at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., on Wednesday he called education “the secret sauce to America’s success,” referred to “a Movement going on,” and unveiled an advisory board of educators, business and non-profits leaders and politicians who will study different models and spread the word about free tuition. The advisory board — chaired by Dr. Jill Biden — is available here.

“I’ve been focused on community colleges,” Obama said in his speech. “They are at the heart of the American dream. For every young person willing to work hard, I want community college to be as free and universal as high school. It’s easy for politicians to say young people are the future. But you’ve got to walk the walk. No kid should be priced out of a college education. No hardworking young person should be denied just because of where they started. You don’t have to necessarily go to a four-year degree to get a good job, but you need to have some specialized skills.”

This initiative has recently been formalized in Tennessee and Oregon and is being piloted in Minnesota. It has also been established by community college systems in places like Miami, Chicago, Seattle and Philadelphia.

Threading the needle with an act of Congress is not required. Colleges, cities and states have already created incentives and motivations for students that are “willing to work for it” and there is significant federal money already out there. What’s needed is awareness, courage, will and additional funds to close the gaps.

President Obama and Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan will be speaking about college access and affordability on Monday at North High School in Des Moines, Iowa, as part of Duncan’s annual back-to-school bus tour. Without question, one of the topics will be the Department of Education’s new College Scoreboard, which is a massive collection of data regarding success, debt and income of those receiving financial aid or loans from the federal government. Click here for a fascinating piece on how the data was collected and prepared for public consumption.