SHAFAQNA – The roots of President Obama’s ambitious proposal for free community college can be found in a 2008 book by the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz called “The Race Between Education and Technology.”
The book, a combination of economics and history, tells the story of how the United States built the world’s most successful economy by building its most successful education system. At the heart of that system was the universal high school movement of the early 20th century, which turned the United States into the world’s most educated country. These educated high school graduates — white-collar and blue-collar alike — powered the prosperity of the 20th century, Ms. Goldin and Mr. Katz demonstrated.
“The 20th century was the American century,” they wrote, “because it was the human-capital century.”
The book, published by an academic press, wasn’t exactly a best-seller, but it was a sensation among many researchers, journalists and policy makers, including some close to Mr. Obama and including both liberals and conservatives. The book’s ideas came to influence more than a few people who have never read it — including Mr. Obama (assuming he hasn’t read its 488 pages).
President Obama in Phoenix on Thursday. He will be in Tennessee on Friday to announce his education initiative on community colleges. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
On Friday, he will travel to Tennessee to announce a proposal to make community college free for any student who enrolls at least part-time and maintains a 2.5 grade point average. In a show of rare bipartisan force, he will be accompanied by the state’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, as well as its two Republican senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, White House officials said.
The plan would allow anyone admitted to a community college to attend without paying tuition, so long as they enroll in a program meeting certain basic requirements and they remain on track to graduate in three years. Its broad goals are clear: to extend the amount of mass education available, for free, beyond high school — from K-through-12, to K-through-college.
“The president thinks this is a moment like when we decided to make high school universal,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
The program is modeled in part on a program that Mr. Haslam has started in Tennessee and on one Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and Mr. Obama’s former chief of staff, has started. “I actually think people who go there,” Mr. Emanuel recently told me, referring to community colleges, “deserve as much attention as people in four-year colleges. They shouldn’t be an afterthought.”
The Obama proposal would apply not only to recent high school graduates, as the Chicago and Tennessee programs do, but also to adults going back to college. Colleges, to qualify for the federal plan, would need to offer credits that transferred to four-year colleges or training programs shown to lead to jobs.
Any state joining the program would need to pay 25 percent of the cost. White House officials won’t yet give a cost estimate, but I imagine the annual cost could reach something like $15 billion dollars a year — not enormous in a $3.5 trillion federal budget but not tiny either.
Despite the presence of the Tennessee Republicans at the event on Friday, to be held at Pellissippi Community College in Knoxville, the outcome of the proposal is obviously uncertain. Given the last six years, it’s worth some skepticism about any prospect of bipartisan agreement.
If the two parties do somehow agree on a plan, the next question will be whether they can ensure that students enroll in community colleges with track records of success. Mr. Obama’s aides say they intend to build such safeguards into the program, but the details aren’t yet clear. Many community colleges (like many four-year colleges) have depressingly high dropout rates.
However important these details may be, it’s also worth acknowledging the potential impact of the plan — which is huge. Battles over health care, immigration, gun control and other issues may attract more attention. But both history and economics suggest that nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy. Even if a federal program doesn’t pass, the growth of state and local programs — like Chicago’s and Tennessee’s — have a large economic effect.
It isn’t just the book by Ms. Goldin and Mr. Katz (both Harvard professors and graduates of public high schools) that makes this point. The unemployment rate for college graduates is far lower than for everyone else. The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else is at a record high. The countries that have reversed history and made more educational progress in recent years than the United States have also experienced faster income growth. In a globalized, high-tech economy, education — the process by which people learn new skills — has a return on investment like nothing else.
Nearly a century has passed since the universal high school movement took off in the United States. And the world is clearly a far different place today than it was 100 years ago, with success depending vastly more on knowledge than it used to. If 13 years of education — K-through-12 — was the right amount of education for the typical citizen back then, it surely is not still the right amount today