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Free Community College: A Worthy Concept

President Obama proposed plans for providing a free community-college education for many students at his State of the Union address last week. The proposal, “America’s College Promise,” which would benefit an estimated 9 million students annually, is still very much in the formative stages, and there are a number of rather sizeable hurdles to be cleared before this concept can advance, let alone become reality, but we believe the proposal should be given full consideration and at least a chance to succeed.

Why? Because, as we’ve said on many occasions, the key to economic growth and prosperity for this region — and one of the keys to closing the huge income gap between the haves and the have-nots in this state and across the country — is education, and free community college for those who qualify is a possible place to start.

Not everyone who attends community college goes on to graduate — in fact, far more than half don’t — or get a good-paying job, and these facts won’t change if such an education suddenly becomes available free of charge. But such a development could have enormous potential to prompt more people to start college and finish it. And since one needs a high-school diploma, or the equivalent, like a GED, to get into a community college, it makes sense that providing that option free would inspire more people to stay in school.

And that’s important in communities like Springfield and Holyoke, where high school drop-out rates are sky high and a major contributor to poverty and a growing skills gap within the workforce.

But let’s back up a minute. Free community college as a national policy is certainly a long shot. The principal problem is funding it. Under the plan the president is proposing, estimated to cost $60 billion over a decade, states would have to pay roughly 25% of the cost.

Well, this state, according to Gov. Charlie Baker, is facing a budget gap of roughly $765 million, and none of the options for closing that gap are particularly attractive. And there are many states in that same boat.

Beyond the fiscal challenges, though, there are some stern logistical challenges as well. Can community colleges like the four in this region handle a surge in their student populations? Perhaps, but not easily and not without expansion of current infrastructure and the hiring of more teachers and administrators, which would greatly increase the program’s price tag.

Also, whenever something is provided free, it tends to lose some of its value. This can’t be allowed to happen in this case, and to ensure that it doesn’t, strict eligibility guidelines must be attached to a free community-college education. In the case of the president’s plan, there are such rules — students must attend at least half-time, maintain a grade point average of at least 2.5, and make “steady progress” toward graduating.

And there are philosophical and political challenges to overcome as well. Indeed, some lawmakers simply don’t believe it is the government’s — and, ultimately the taxpayers’ — responsibility to be providing a free college education. Garnering necessary political support will be difficult.

But as we said earlier, Obama and his administration should fully explore this concept. Many governments around the world subsidize or partially subsidize higher education, and they do so because they view such expenditures as a sound investment in their future.

We should have the same attitude here. It should be clear to everyone by now that, while one could become a member of the middle class decades ago without a college education, or even a high-school education, the odds of doing so now are much slimmer.

And while there are many reasons why individuals don’t enter or finish college, financial wherewithal is easily the biggest.

Providing a free community-college education is a bold, challenge-filled proposition, but it’s a concept that holds great promise and should be pursued.

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