A better chance to go to college

President Obama’s proposal to give free tuition to community college students acknowledges a clear shift in the relationship between education and employment: A high school education is no longer enough to ensure a good chance at a decent job.

The proposal, which the president announced Friday in Tennessee, would provide tuition-free community college to millions of high school graduates. All students must do is keep a grade-point average of 2.5.

At an average of $3,800 a student, however, that’s not cheap. Republicans in Congress will likely blanch at an annual price tag in the billions, even with states paying some of the cost, as Obama is proposing.

It’s worth it. Studies and surveys show that more jobs than ever require a two- or four-year college degree. For many of those jobs, the demands of technology have changed the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully perform work. Also, many employers see a college degree the way they used to see a high school diploma, as a sign that workers have discipline and drive.

The result, however, is that young men and women are being penalized if they can’t afford the next step after high school. That contributes to a growing income gap, and it negates one of the primary purposes of public education – to prepare our children to be productive adults.

Obama’s plan is modeled after initiatives in Chicago and Tennessee, with the latter providing some compelling political cover for the president. Tennessee Promise – which provides two years of tuition-free education at state community colleges and technical schools beginning this year – was the product of a Republican governor, Bill Haslam.

Tennessee Promise was part of the state’s Drive to 55, a public-private effort to get 55 percent of Tennessee workers a college degree or certificate. Haslam said that 55 percent of jobs in Tennessee will require a two- or four-year college degree by 2025.

As for those four-year colleges, most across the country would benefit from Obama’s community college plan. While some four-year schools might initially lose students who choose a free community college education, that surely will be offset by the increased numbers of students who feed from community colleges to four-year institutions.

All of which comes with a price tag. The president’s plan could cost more than $30 billion annually, according to some estimates. The federal government would pay for 75 percent, with states paying the rest if they choose to opt in.

In states with tight budgets, such as North Carolina, that’s a potentially steep bill. But Gov. Pat McCrory has been a vocal supporter of community colleges, and legislators should recognize the payoff of this investment.

It’s no different, really, from the principles that have long supported K-12 public education. When children graduate from high school, they help themselves and their communities thrive. The jobs they want are changing, however. We need to change, too.