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America’s Community Colleges: The Infrastructure of Opportunity | Commentary

President Barack Obama reminded us in his State of the Union address, “America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world. But in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to do more.” He unveiled a plan for free community college education.

With these words, and Monday’s federal budget release, the president is presenting Congress with an unprecedented opportunity to solve many of our nation’s greatest challenges — a lack of affordable higher education, stagnant wages, stubborn pockets of poverty and fierce global economic competition. We welcome the debate around potential policy options that is sure to follow the release of the budget, but it’s clear now the keys to unlock economic growth through education are now firmly in the hands of Congress. As leaders of the nation’s community college campuses, trustees, policy advisers and advocates, we all stand ready to work with one another and with Congress to make this promise a reality.

Our students often come from families and communities on the losing side of the country’s expanding economic inequality. Millions are priced out of college, or taking on debt that will drag them down for decades. As mission-driven not-for-profits, we offer the best value in higher education, and we have fought against the odds to keep our tuition and fees low. Our average annual cost to students is $3,264, compared to $8,893 for a public four-year college and $30,090 for a private four-year college. But students still have to pay rent, use transportation, buy books, feed themselves and, often, their children.

Let’s remember that the nearly 14 million community college students are red, blue and independents. They are old and young. They are black, white, Latino and Asian — the very mosaic of our society. Our students are diverse, but they are all striving to obtain skills for good jobs, launch a four-year degree, and to achieve economic security for themselves and their families. But their demand is outpacing what we can supply.

This proposal, with the federal dollars to back it, offers the additional support we need to expand our underfunded system. With open doors to all, we are 1,200 colleges strong, in cities, suburbs and rural areas nationwide. Our leaders have worked successfully for decades with both Republican and Democratic administrations, as well as many for-profit institutions. As members of local communities in every state in the nation, community colleges know about collaboration.

By funding community college education, Congress can make one of the most profitable investments in the national economy. The business community is clamoring for a better educated workforce. It is estimated as many as 3 million job openings in the U.S. go unfilled for months on end, as roughly half of employers now say they are having a hard time finding qualified workers to hire, particularly in technical fields. Community colleges provide students with the necessary training to fill that gap. A recent study found that on an individual level, every $1 a student invests in his or her community college education yields, on average, a return on investment of $3.80. But for taxpayers, the ROI per dollar is even better: $6.80 over the course of students’ working lives.

Consider that with the unsustainable escalation of tuition, our nation has amassed $1 trillion in student loan debt — and many end up defaulting. Every dollar we invest now is one we don’t have to pay later — particularly when Americans are without the skills they need, unemployed, or working for such low wages that they are forced to depend on social services. Community college graduates earn 20 percent more than their peers with high school diplomas. We applaud the president’s suggestion for sharing the burden — students do their part through maintaining solid grades, and the State and Federal governments use the people’s money to create more graduates, well-paid workers and contributing taxpayers.

The 78th U.S. Congress passed the GI Bill, creating the catalyst for the greatest economic expansion in our nation’s history and constructing a middle class that the world would envy. The members of the 114th Congress can go down in history having opened the doors of opportunity to the American people. We ask, respectfully, that Congress seize this significant moment to fulfill America’s College Promise.

Walter G. Bumphus is president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, the primary advocacy organization for the nation’s community colleges. J. Noah Brown is president and CEO of Association of Community College Trustees, a non-profit educational organization representing the trustees who govern community, technical and junior colleges in the U.S. and beyond. Gerardo de los Santos is president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College, an international organization serving community colleges. Evelyn Waiwaiole is director of Center for Community College Student Engagement, a research and service initiative dedicated to providing important information about effective educational practice in community colleges. Rod Risley is executive director and CEO of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society serving to recognize and encourage the academic achievement of two-year college students. William Trueheart is president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, the national reform network dedicated to helping community college students succeed. Want More Stories Like This? Subscribe to our Thought Leaders Newsletter.