“The economy has changed so much,” said David Baime, senior vice president and a lobbyist for the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington. “The primary difference is that 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago maybe - if you had a manufacturing job, if you had a high school diploma, you could still have a family-sustaining wage, and that’s becoming less true nowadays.”
A study by economists at Southern Methodist University shows that people with just a high school degree earn an average of $40,000 a year compared to $60,000 a year with an associate degree from a junior college.
According to the Ohio Board of Regents, nearly 190,000 students were enrolled in Ohio’s 23 community colleges in the fall of 2013, including 22,853 at Sinclair Community College and 5,653 at Clark State Community College in Springfield.
David Wayne, program coordinator for marketing and communications at Columbus State Community College, said tuition at his school is $4,077.90 for two semesters. By comparison, The Ohio State University website says it costs an average of $10,037 for one year of student tuition there.
The soaring costs at four-year schools have made community colleges a popular alternative. Allen Kraus, a vice president of marketing and communications at Columbus State, said a growing number of students attend the school hoping to transfer to a four-year school.
Obama appealed for his tuition program during a speech in Indiana last week.
“We’re not just working to make our community colleges free,” the president said during a speech to students at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis. “We want to make them better and more responsive.”
But Obama’s proposal could be a tough sell in Indiana and other Republican states such as Ohio, both because of its potential cost and the strings attached. States would have to cover about a fourth of the program’s cost over 10 years, and they would have to meet other criteria, including reducing the need for remedial classes.
“There is really no free. Somebody else has a burden someplace else,” said Indiana Republican state Rep. Tim Brown after Obama’s Indiana address.
Brown believes students are more invested in their education when they’re responsible for paying for it. “With responsibility of that education comes some ownership,” he said.
It’s about saving money
If not for choosing community college, Molly Berlin might have spent thousands of dollars more on an education path she was unsure about.
Berlin, now in her second semester at Columbus State Community College, was uncertain what she wanted to study when she enrolled, but knew that she wanted to save money in the process.
So rather than transferring to a four-year school next year, she plans to stay at Columbus State and obtain an associate’s degree in paralegal studies.
“A lot of the people that go to community college, they are doing technical work,” said Berlin, who is from the Columbus suburb of Worthington. “These are our plumbers, our auto mechanics - the more educated they are, the more helpful they are.”
If not for spending two years at a community college, Jordan Barth of New Jersey says he might never have made it to Washington, D.C.
He wanted to attend a four-year school in the nation’s capital, but simply did not have enough money to pay for all four years. So he opted to pay $10,000 to study public administration at a community college in New Jersey and then transferred to American University where he is now a junior majoring in political science.
“I was your typical overachiever in high school,” said Barth. “I applied to big name schools, didn’t get in, and I had great scholarship offers from other places. But for where I wanted to be, I ultimately made the decision, and my parents definitely assisted - put it that way - that community college would be the best option.”
How to pay for it
To pay for his plan, Obama wants Congress to increase taxes on wealthier individuals and some large companies. But in return, students would have to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average.
In his Indiana speech, Obama said students do not “get two years of free goofing off … you have to put in the effort.”
Republican leaders have rejected raising taxes on anyone to pay for the community college program. In an interview last month on CBS’ 60 Minutes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said “we added more debt during the Obama years from George Washington down to George Bush. The last thing we need to do to these young people is add more debt and giving away free tuition strikes me as something we can’t afford.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.