Why Tom Hanks is pushing community college

Actor Tom Hanks is backing a government proposal to fund community college. Could the U.S. benefit from making it more accessible?

Jonathan Short/Invision/AP/File
Actor Tom Hanks recently wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times about his experience at Chabot College, a community college in California. This photo was taken at the London Film Festival in central London in October 2013.

Community colleges have poor graduation rates. They are the last resort for high schoolers who slack on their grades. They try too hard to be all things to all people. They prevent students from being successful. These are among the criticisms leveled at the two-year programs.

So why is Tom Hanks backing President Obama's proposal to offer two years of free community college?

President Obama recently went public with the ambitious America’s College Promise, a plan to offer two years of free community college for “those willing to work for it,” defined by those who agree to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA. The full details of the plan will not be outlined until Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 20, as well as in his budget proposal.

Critics and supporters alike are skeptical that the proposal will make it through the Republican-controlled Congress with its $60 billion price tag. But if it did pass, the plan could save millions of students about $3,800 each in tuition costs.  

Is spending federal money on community colleges worth it?

Tom Hanks thinks so. In a recent opinion column in The New York  Times, Mr. Hanks fondly remembers his two years at Chabot, a community college in Hayward, Calif. Unable to afford a traditional four-year college, Hanks now declares, “That place made me what I am today.”

Hank discusses the value of his community college education, and how it made schooling accessible to anyone who wanted to continue into higher education. And then, he backs Obama's proposal. 

I’m guessing the new Congress will squawk at the $60 billion price tag, but I hope the idea sticks, because more veterans, from Iraq and Afghanistan this time, as well as another generation of mothers, single parents and workers who have been out of the job market, need lower obstacles between now and the next chapter of their lives. High school graduates without the finances for a higher education can postpone taking on big loans and maybe luck into the class that will redefine their life’s work. Many lives will be changed,” Hank said in his article.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, about 8 million students enroll in community colleges every fall. David Baime, the senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for AACC, is aware of criticisms of the proposal, but ultimately feels community colleges offer a great service to people who otherwise would not seek higher education.

“A lot of people go on to higher education today, but a lot of people don’t. The proposal is focused on community colleges, but it’s notable that the way [Obama is] presenting it is to talk about the need to get a postsecondary education,” Mr. Baime says in a phone interview. “If you want a family sustaining wage, you can’t get it without a secondary education. Community colleges is where that universal access is going to be found.”

Baime says that in fairness, one major criticism of community colleges is the low graduation rate. With easier acceptance practices, critics say it is an ‘easy entrance, easy exit’ education. But Baime argues that a lot more students complete degrees than most people recognize, and for those who do not, it is still an education they would otherwise not have the opportunity to pursue.

“It’s less expensive. It’s more convenient to attend by virtue of being local for most students. It offers education and training relevant to particular occupations, and provides a lot of transfer options,” Baime says.

According to the proposal, the federal government would pay for 75 percent of the two years of tuition, with states pitching in the rest. Students would have to be enrolled at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 GPA to qualify. The White House issued a statement, explaining that the loftiness of this plan will require everyone – from the federal and state governments to the students – to make this successful. The implication being that there will be requirements placed on the schools and states, as well as the students, to qualify for the federal funds.

“This proposal will require everyone to do their part: community colleges must strengthen their programs and increase the number of students who graduate, states must invest more in higher education and training, and students must take responsibility for their education, earn good grades, and stay on track to graduate.”

Critics, including Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the University of Maryland and a national columnist, say Obama's plan "would simply pour money onto failing diploma mills."  Morici writes:

Marginal students — for example, those with a gap in math, writing or study skills — can be helped. However, remedial programs and counseling won’t do much for a 19-year old mother — who receives no child support — reads at the sixth grade level, can’t do algebra and has significant emotional and self-esteem issues. Yet, that is exactly who the president proposes to send to college.
Too many job seekers don’t have the skills businesses need but pushing more dysfunctional students into community college won’t help.
Starved for funds, those institutions will simply game the system — enroll more students in programs aimed at transferring to four-year colleges and award more B’s and C’s in watered-down courses. Universities like mine will face enormous political pressure from “progressive” state lawmakers to accept the transfers, award questionable degrees and generally join in the fraud.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) is aware of the criticisms leveled at community colleges and lists its counter arguments. With the continuing rise in tuition costs and rising student debt, overall college enrollment has gone down, for many Americans community colleges are simply a more affordable, and therefore attractive, option for those seeking higher education. 

But even community colleges are seeing a decline in enrollment as the economy picks up. Older students (over 24 years old) are leaving and going back into the workforce. That's part of what has pushed community college enrollment rates down in the past year, according to Inside Higher Ed

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