Americans are facing three realities regarding higher education: the rising cost of college, onerous student loan burdens and an increasing demand for a college education. With an undergraduate degree now considered the minimum ticket to the middle class, attaining one has become more difficult and often prohibitively expensive, particularly for lower-income students.
President Obama’s proposal to make a two-year community college education tuition free could help alleviate the pressure. While it is by no means a cure for what ails the higher-education system, it has a finite and achievable goal and the potential of joining federal and state efforts to promote higher education.
Under the plan, the federal government would pay 75 percent of the cost of tuition — some $60 billion over 10 years — with the states picking up the rest. Critics say that instead of across-the-board free tuition, the money should be targeted to the truly needy. Supporters welcome the reinvestment of state funding under the plan, as funding cuts are one of the drivers of tuition increases.
The high cost of education is an issue on the elementary and secondary school levels as well. Hence the support of some in the Jewish community for publicly funded vouchers to help pay for a day-school education. As a strong education from elementary school through college is a necessary component to communal success, it is worth seriously considering plans that will make education more affordable.
But cost is only part of the problem. For far too long, our nation’s education system, driven by federal policy focusing on test scores and similar results-driven strategies, has missed the forest for the trees. The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to be an answer, but it gets very mixed reviews. Many of the cutbacks in public school courses in humanities and extracurricular activities have been blamed on the focus on test results mandated by NCLB. And it still isn’t clear that our public education system is any stronger or more effective as a result of the program. There is unquestionably more work to be done.
Thus, while we endorse the president’s proposal in principle, we hope it opens a national dialogue on education that results in our society reaffirming a core truth: Education is a right that should be afforded to all. We will be a stronger nation for it.