During his State of the Union address last month, President Obama introduced a proposal to offer tuition-free community college for students who attend school at least half time, keep their grade point average above 2.5, and make steady progress toward a degree.
This proposal could have a huge impact on the lives of working women, who make up the majority of community college students. Too many people don’t realize that the average community college student is a 29-year old woman who attends school part time while working to support herself. She very well might be supporting her kids, too, since nearly one-third of community college students are parents. Earning her associate’s degree means an average 27 percent increase in lifetime earnings over a high school graduate’s—an income that will benefit herself, her family, and her community.
In my job, I fight to protect the funding for Illinois’ financial aid program, MAP, and I hear stories from the women who put a face on these statistics. So when I think about Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college, I don’t think about whom it can help in the abstract. I think of Elena, who spent 12 years working at a warehouse, scraping by on incredibly low wages and acting as the primary caretaker of her parents. After she graduated with her bachelor’s degree, helped along by financial aid, she said, “I am filled with hope, because with the skills I’ve gained, the sky is the limit.” I think of Jenny, who started college while she was living in a battered women’s shelter. She wants to earn her degree in radiology technology to get a job that will help her become self-sufficient and build a safe, stable life for herself and her family.
These women don’t just need help in paying for college classes—they also need the student supports that help them figure out which classes to take, prepare for and do well in those classes, and afford associated expenses such as transportation, books, and childcare.
This side of the story has been brought up in the response to Obama’s proposal. Responses have run the gamut from outrage to elation, of course, and everyone from political pundits to Tom Hanks have been talking about community college. David Brooks brought up the question of student supports in his New York Times op-ed, which calls for “programs that will actually boost completion [of college degrees].” Washington Post columnist Esther Cepeda joined Brooks in writing about the need for more student supports, such as on-site child care, more tutoring services, and more accessible public transportation to campuses.
Obama’s proposal is not perfect, and both Brooks and Cepeda are right to call for more student supports, which are vital for student success. Strong guidance and counseling programs are crucial when it comes to helping students progress toward their degrees. Financial aid can’t stop at tuition; it must extend to living costs. And many working parents, especially single moms, need to attend school less than half time and will not be covered by this program.
But even though it isn’t going to fix everything, the President’s proposal represents a step in the right direction. The cost of tuition, even at a community college, is a major barrier for many low-wage workers. Our current financial aid programs aren’t big enough to meet the need, and they’re constantly threatened by budget cuts. More than two-thirds of adult students who drop out of college likely do so because they don’t have the money to continue, according to data from the Apollo Research Institute.
Every person should have the chance to go to college. Low-wage working women like Elena and Jenny should be able to earn the degrees they need to get better jobs and create more stable lives. We can—and should—do better by them. And while giving students two years of tuition-free college might not be doing our very best, it is certainly doing better.
About the author: Sarah Labadie is a Senior Policy Associate for Women Employed, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of working women. She weighs in on issues related to financial aid in Women Employed’s monthly e-newsletter, WE-Zine.