President Obama's bold proposal to make two years of community college virtually free is the most encouraging idea for higher education to emerge from Washington in years. Just like the 1862 Morrill Act, which donated land on which to establish great public universities, and the GI Bill, which helped World War II veterans attend college, the president's plan is a game changer, potentially adding two years of college onto every young person's education.
As we see inequalities worsen and gaps between the rich and poor widen, we must recommit ourselves to equalizing opportunities for all. The surest way to accomplish this is through providing more educational opportunities. The White House initiative would lead to an increase in students getting two-year associate degrees or vocational training, both important to our economy. But it also would inevitably lead to a jump in the number of four-year bachelor's degrees, particularly in California and at a time when we need greater participation in our knowledge-based economy.
Historically, California's Master Plan for Higher Education meant that our system of higher education — composed of community colleges, Cal State University and the University of California, each with distinct and complementary mandates — provided a broad, accessible, affordable gateway to economic prosperity, civic engagement and an enviable quality of life for large numbers of Californians. It too was a bold proposal in its time. What did we get in return for that boldness? A post-WWII generation of Californians who became leaders in fields ranging from the arts to aerospace and public service to personal computers.
Today, however, our state is threatened with drastically different outcomes. At the very moment economists are predicting a shortage of 1 million highly skilled workers in California by 2020, the state's disinvestment of public higher education — at the community college, state university and UC levels — has resulted in diminished access for many Californians.
The White House proposal, aptly called America's College Promise, can be a vital tool in reversing this trend. It would make entering the pipeline to higher education and to four-year degrees easier for untold numbers of students in California. Nationally, the White House estimates a full-time student could save an average $3,800 a year. The plan also offers flexibility. Students currently using aid, such as a Pell Grant, to cover both tuition and other costs — books and transportation, for example — could use their full Pell Grant just for those other costs.
More students could and should be using community college as a pathway to UC. In fall 2013, UC enrolled more than 15,500 community college transfer students. Their performance is largely indistinguishable from students who enter UC as freshmen, and they enrich our community with their range of backgrounds, experiences and accomplishments.
Increasing community college enrollments is an attractive cost-saving alternative to the as-yet-unfulfilled promise of fully online degrees, which do not allow students to work in labs, have face-to-face exchanges with professors or participate in the richness of campus life. Of course, supporting the president's plan requires that state lawmakers and taxpayers alike agree to invest in expanding opportunities for new students at the community college level while ensuring that the UC and Cal State schools to which those students transfer are properly funded.
Some may question the political viability of this White House plan in a highly polarized Washington. But no politician can deny what every parent — and voter — knows: Education is the key to our future. There's no denying this proposal is a great way to spend public funds — creating an added incentive to attend community college by making it free.
One can always find a reason to delay. But it was during no less a perilous time than the Civil War that President Lincoln saw the importance of establishing land-grant colleges. In a response to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, he signed the Morrill Act.
This is an issue that has the potential to gain support across the political, racial and class divides that too often define our nation. If we choke off educational accessibility today, we suffocate economic viability tomorrow. Increasing numbers of Americans see the pathways of economic opportunity narrowing and believe it will be impossible for them to work their way into the middle class or beyond. The America's Promise program will send a much-needed message to millions of motivated citizens that the American dream can still be their dream too.
Gene D. Block has been chancellor of UCLA since 2007.