Watkins: Free community college a worthy idea

Tom Watkins

President Barack Obama is right to invest in our country by proposing free community college tuition. “Community college should be free for those willing to work for it,” the president said at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee.

This idea is an investment in America’s future. By 2020, 35 percent of all job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree.

It is estimated that 9 million students could participate in the program, saving them an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. The federal government would pick up 75 percent of the $60 billion cost, with states covering the rest. The “America’s College Promise” is modeled after the Tennessee Promise — signed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to offer free community college tuition for two years. A brilliant idea that pays dividends for the student and society.

Some 90 percent of the Tennessee graduating high school seniors have signed up for the state program. This bodes well for their having an educated work force going forward.

Community colleges are the grand entranceways to enhancing knowledge and skills, giving individuals a boost up life’s economic ladder while strengthening our communities. Given the troubling, tumultuous, transformational times we are now living in, our community colleges are truly a life saver for many.

Gov. Bill Haslam and President Barack Obama are pushing community colleges to the center stage of our nation’s consciousness to better prepare our citizens to be able collaborate and compete on the world stage. A young person without a world-class education today will be an adult without much of a future tomorrow. Too often, community colleges are treated as an afterthought rather than the ladder for upward mobility.

Community colleges make a significant difference in Michigan and the United States in helping prepare students and employees for our hyper-competitive, disruptive, and technologically driven global economy, where ideas and jobs can and do now move across the globe effortlessly.

We need to invest in quality education and skill development at all levels. While Gov. Rick Snyder has begun to stop the educational investment slide we must do more to invest in skill development in Michigan and America.

Thirty years ago, on average, Michigan’s community colleges received nearly 50 percent of their funding from state appropriations and another 25 percent each from property taxes and tuition. Today, the state’s contribution is less than half that — 20 percent — while the other 80 percent is derived from property taxes and tuition.

Another reason for investing in our community colleges is how responsive they are to local needs by providing re-education for laid-off workers. These colleges are also agile in providing classes on demand by employers.

It has been argued that our country’s university system stands on tradition — change for it is like turning an ocean liner. In contrast, community colleges respond like a speedboat in providing education to meet immediate community and business needs.

My support for community college education is personal as well as professional. I am a product of Michigan’s excellent community college system with degrees from Michigan State and Wayne State built upon the solid education I received at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn. I would not have had the exciting and rewarding career I enjoy without the educational foundation provided by the excellent instructors at Henry Ford — they are there to teach, and they do so with passion, excellence and hands-on experience.

We cannot and will not compete with developing nations on low-wage and low-skilled jobs. Our future depends on skilled, knowledgeable and flexible workers who can pivot rapidly and stay ahead of our global competitors. That workforce is being prepared today at a community college near you.

Tom Watkins is a former Michigan state superintendent of schools. He is the president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

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