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Why Community College Should Be Free

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After young students acquire their General Educational Development (GED), they are faced with the option of continuing their studies at a college/university or pursuing another option. However, not all students are realistically able to obtain a college education. Students who come from a family that is not financially well off tend to struggle with meeting the financial requirements for tuition and other fees, even if they opt to attend a public community college rather than a university. The average charge for tuition at two-year institutions has increased rapidly over the past few decades; in 1985, the required fees for an entire academic year totaled an average of $971, and as of 2017 the required fees totaled an average of $6,817 (National Center for Education Statistics). This is a 602.06 percent increase over the course of thirty-two years. In today’s working world, a college degree plays a crucial part in success. Wealthier Americans are given an advantage and therefore are more likely to earn a degree, which is unreasonable in today’s society where the middle and working-class takes up the majority. All young Americans should have a chance to obtain the American dream, which is the ideal of “[…] upward economic mobility as measured by family income and family wealth. The American Dream is a construct designed to foster a sense of cohesion and salience and value to an identity as American” (Downs). Community college should be free for all students so that every growing individual has the accessibility to obtain a college education, is given a chance to discover financial stability in today’s economy, and is granted equal opportunity to succeed in a career.

Students are given opportunities like government-sponsored financial aid through The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and other loans or grants to assist in college payments; and while FAFSA helps support many students throughout their college experience, the FAFSA need calculation only views a student’s financial status at one point in time, dismissing shifts over the course of several years (Mathews). Furthermore, the role of parental support is not considered fully; “FAFSA needs calculations are heavily weighted toward parental income and assets without any knowledge of parents’ willingness or ability to support their college-going children,” (Mathews). Students who face unique challenges, such as family obligations or lack of support from their family, at times are unaccounted for receiving extra funding that would help get them to college. People have also expressed their critiques of filling out the paperwork for the FAFSA process, and it is evident that there is room for reform; “[…] the length, complexity, and timing of the FAFSA have left many students, parents, and institutions frustrated, prompting policymakers to demand reform,” (Mathews). If low-income students or doubtful parents feel that they cannot receive the aid that they need from this form, they will likely feel less motivated to apply for it to begin with. Low-income and minority students with the ambition to obtain a higher education often lack comprehension of the financial aid system, the requirements, and the costs of college admission and struggle with the application system. If this process were taken away altogether and replaced with free tuition, people would not struggle with applying for financial aid effectively, and the surging prices of tuition will not have such a negative impact on educational opportunities. Moreover, even when students apply for financial aid effectively, they may not be getting the aid they require and deserve. Unable to meet financial requirements, many young people never attend college or drop out at some point before earning their degree. Higher education is becoming less accessible and the student debt crisis is expanding in the United States, even at public institutions. New research shows that the student debt crisis was found to be focused on a specific group of students; nontraditional students who attend two-year institutions like community colleges, as expressed in the following quote; “Half of all student borrowers in 2011 attended a for-profit or two-year college, yet this group represented 70 percent of defaults, according to economists Adam Looney of the Treasury Department and Constantine Yannelis of Stanford University,” (Cook). Generally, nontraditional students are older or first-generation students who tend to live in poorer neighborhoods and do not attend college right after graduating high school. When this group does begin to seek employment, they do not typically earn as much or benefit from their degrees to the same extent as traditional students who complete four years at private or public institutions. This population of students accounts for most of the spike in student debt (Cook). Since this group contributes the most to the student debt crisis and they are the group that requires it the most, it is clear that change needs to be made.

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Community colleges provide students with a local learning environment and the idea of equal opportunity for postsecondary education. This objective is evident in the common policies of two-year public colleges: “[…]in their ‘open door’ admissions, in their flexible scheduling of classes in the evening and on weekends and at locations that are convenient for the students, and in the practice of offering almost any educational experience that students feel they need,” (Nelson 515). Attending a two-year college is a great way for people to get started with their postsecondary education and ease the stress imposed by student loans. On the other hand, concerned observers often protest that students who opt for community college face unjustness by the state, because even though they have a lower tuition price, they are also granted lower subsidies and lower disbursements for their education compared to students who attend senior public institutions. Community colleges may be receiving less than their fair share of aid, as depicted in the following quote; “22 percent of federal student aid funds go to community colleges while they enroll 34 percent of all students and serve a less affluent clientele,” (Nelson 524). The assumption is that the absence of just support yields subordinate educational opportunities, which is especially inconvenient from the perspective of a community colleges’ less well-to-do student body. In terms of students who are occasionally marginalized in higher education, the Pell Grant is the primary form of student aid that is not required to be repaid. The Pell Grant is the most common grant program; it offers yearly payments of up to $5,500 (maximum in 2012) for low-income students in eligible institutions (Cellini). One way an applicant can become eligible is through federal methodology using the result of a family’s EFC (Expected Family Contribution) on the FAFSA. Because Pell-eligibility is allotted based on the net costs encountered by a student at a variety of enrollment options, an applicant’s Cost of Attendance (COA) varies by school, making a student Pell-eligible at one school but ineligible at another (Rubin 678). This could mean that the school that may be the closest or most probable option for a student to attend may be out of reach. Hence, many young people who qualify for higher education and wish to study might not be able to. The burden of student costs and debt could be erased wholly if free community college were offered to students willing to put in the work. A Charleston newspaper article published in 2015 states, “As recently as the early 1990s, most college students did not take out loans to finance their education. Now, however, nearly three out of four college graduates have borrowed to cover their college costs, running up a debt averaging $30,000 each. As a result, American student loan debt now totals $1.3 trillion” (Wittner). Free higher education would take the pressure off of all students, as well as non-students while allowing economic mobility for those whose circumstances hinder them from accessing college without the constant reminder of debt shadowing over them. Even when students acquire the aid they need to get them through college, many procure an immense amount of student debt over the years, which can cause adverse effects.

The weight of debt can make entering the job market for college graduates significantly taxing. Many young people can only afford to attend college by working long hours at low-paying jobs simultaneously (which decreases the time that could be spent studying) and/or by running up enormous debt. This creates situations where students are poor in time as well as money, which leads to exhaustion and stress, which can undermine poorer students’ success levels and lead to jeopardizing student outcomes, as described in the following quote; “Laura Choi of the Federal Reserve Bank reports that economic stress was extremely harmful to individuals’ physical and mental health and that this emotional burden resulted in more ‘workplace absenteeism, diminished workplace performance, and depression,’” (Downs). If the financial burden required for so many people to receive an education could be alleviated, then it could certainly help individuals and set them up for future success, simply by making their lives a bit easier. Student debt is taking an astonishing toll on fresh degree holders; to the extent that they may feel like they must avoid making some large-scale advances. A survey titled ‘Student Loan Debt: Who’s Paying the Price?’ reveals a variety of noteworthy statistics about the influence of student loans on college graduates. For instance, the survey found that: 50 percent of interviewees said they have been held back from buying a house, 64 percent said their current debt would keep them from pursuing a new degree, 56 percent said their loans have stopped them from buying a car, 21 percent are struggling to start a family, 49 percent said they would delay engagement or marriage because of their own debt, and 50 percent agreed that student loans have limited their career choices (Student Loan Debt: Who’s Paying the Price?). This information makes it indisputable that many college graduate’s lives are centered around the reminder of the debt that accumulated from getting a degree that is a necessary component in making ample money in most modern career fields. Moreover, if many college graduates are postponing large-scale purchases due to their student debt, it is affecting the economy as a whole. There are many advantages of additional education post-high school for individuals and society; for example, on an individual level, it can lead to higher salaries as well as improved consumer choices and better health (Steinberg). If young people can remain focused on building their career and future, this individual well-being will also contribute to the welfare of the country. At a social level, “higher education is associated with greater community involvement, reduced unemployment, reduced crime, and increased charitable contributions of time and money,” (Steinberg). Adding two extra years to the free K-12 schooling that already exists will not fix most existing social or economic issues; it is just a step in the right direction, and it promotes community health and a thriving society. These personal and societal benefits are of substantial value to “governments at all levels; due to these gains, tax revenues are increased and expenditures on welfare and assistance programs are reduced,” (Steinberg). Ultimately, making college free and therefore extremely affordable and accessible could be in the best interest of not only students but the economy as well.

People not in favor of free community college often assert that it could result in waitlists, that it could cause academic underperformance, and that it might reduce the quality of the learning environment, all of which are plausible concerns. In consideration of the waitlist argument, free college could undeniably result in waitlists or not enough available classes. However, if it were more difficult to secure a spot in classes, it could discourage students from taking their spot for granted. Most community college students either acquire a two-year degree, further job training, or the first two years of a bachelor’s degree, so students could either be getting in and out of the institution faster, provided with the ability to go ahead and take on their career or given a pathway to extra education at a four-year university. Therefore, waitlists could up the drive for students to display why they are fit for a place at that school, which also leads to the next proposed issue: academic underperformance. Free tuition does not guarantee that the students signing up for those classes will prosper, rather, it gives them the chance to prove their abilities that they may not have the chance to prove otherwise. There would need to be guidelines set in place for the free tuition; for example, it should be granted to students who are willing to work for it and that could meet certain GPA or class requirements. Thus, not every student would qualify for free tuition; the aid would not come too easily to the point where they could slack off, and those that do could be easily identified and lose their free tuition. Lastly, in response to the reduction of the quality of the learning environment, this free tuition program would require all those involved to do their part: community colleges would have to fortify their programs and make sure graduation rates are expanding, or at the very least, maintaining. States would have to put more investments into the field of higher education and training, and students must be responsible for keeping up with their learning, earning satisfactory grades, and graduating with whatever degree they are pursuing on schedule. Overall, offering free tuition is a risk that is worth it for the improvement of society.

Given the particular demands of today’s job market and the disintegration of the type of blue-collar jobs that once made it viable for a person with solely their GED to make a congenial living, post-secondary education is now required to flourish in modern America; and it should be made easier to achieve one. The cost of community college may be affordable for many students today, but it is not affordable for all students; some would have to make back-breaking sacrifices to attend, which limits opportunities for a great number of potential students. Higher education needs to be free so that anyone who possesses the drive to put forth the time, patience, and effort to obtain a college degree can, instead of being catapulted into low-wage jobs with little possibility of economic or social mobility. Free community college tuition would establish educational equity among Americans, encourage students to pursue careers without having to experience outstanding debt, and provide benefits to all students; even those who experience minimal financial barriers. Lastly, Americans mastering high-demand skills to join the workforce, whether it is vocational and technical skills or a higher specialized degree, will encourage all available labor resources to be used in the most efficient way possible. Secondary education will enhance the intelligence of America’s citizens, and America needs a knowledgeable workforce to keep up with the evolving international economy. The students would indisputably need to put forth the effort, and there is no guarantee that they will succeed just because their education was paid for, but it seems to be much more advantageous for people to try to seek higher education and fail rather than to never have the chance to further their education and know what they are capable of.

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