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Can Free Tuition Change Students’ Attitudes About College?

Jirka Matousek

Leading up to his State of Union address tonight, President Obama announced he wants to make community college tuition free to encourage more people to get education beyond high school.

It’s a goal many people can get behind, but advocates in Indiana are more excited about the national platform for the conversation than the president’s proposal.

High School Education Is ‘Not Enough’

President Obama said his new plan to bring down the cost of community college tuition in America is the most important proposal of his State of the Union address he’ll give tonight.

“I want to bring it down to zero,” he said in his announcement.

The plan says if a student maintains a 2.5 GPA while attending community college at least halftime, they wont pay any tuition.

And while the logistics of how to pay for this plan — and whether Congress will even pass it — are still unknown, higher education advocates are thrilled the White House recognizes something they’ve know for a long time.

“An education that stops at high school is not enough for today’s world,” Ivy Tech Community College President Tom Snyder says.

Snyder says this fact is why community colleges are more important than ever, to help prepare students that wouldn’t traditionally go to college, students like Ivy Tech graduate Karen Demerly who now works in IT at a health nonprofit.

“I’ve built a career on that degree,” Demerly says. “I probably could have gone farther if I’d gone to get my bachelor’s. But with my associate’s degree, I’ve been able to advance and take on increasing roles and responsibility and maintain that income that helps me do what I want to do.”

Like many community college students, Demerly got her degree more than a decade after graduating high school.

Snyder says while Ivy Tech will always accept those students, they want students to make that realization earlier.

“We’re replacing K-12 with K-14. And what that means is that everyone is going to have to be pursuing something beyond high school,” Snyder says.

A Changing Job Market Means Changing Educational Needs

That term, K-14, might be new to you. To explain, here’s an example from Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s Commissioner for Higher Education. She says the state’s expansive manufacturing sector used to employ many Hoosiers – and although it’s still a thriving sector, it looks radically different.

“If you walked into a manufacturing plant today, one of our auto industry plants for example, you’d see robotics going on, the education beyond high school is necessary,” Lubbers says.

That’s where the idea of K-14 comes in. Higher education, whether a bachelor’s degree, associates degree, technical training or certification, is so necessary it’s already engrained into the current model of K-12 education, with high school students taking AP classes or getting technical training before they even graduate.

The idea of providing community college for everyone seems a little lofty to Lubbers, and she sees the president’s suggestion as more of a positive step in the right direction rather than a solution.

“Personally I don’t think it’s likely to happen in one legislative session of Congress,” she says. “It’s a significant change in the way we deal with these issues, while not in any way taking away from the importance and the value of having a conversation about affordability.”

Shifting The Attitudes Of Students

One of those conversations about the cost of higher education is headquartered in Indianapolis at the Lumina Foundation, which works to promote higher education in communities all over the country.

The Lumina Foundation in Indianapolis spearheads many of those conversations. The organization works to promote higher education in communities all over the country. Dewayne Matthews is the foundation’s vice president for strategy development, and agrees we can do more to find permanent solutions to paying for higher education.

“But the idea of let’s make it simple, make it transparent, make it clear to students and families how much college actually is going to cost and how to pay for it, there’s a real opening there to make that the case,” Matthews says.

Matthews says the biggest struggle with promoting higher education is changing the attitudes of students, an attitude that kept Demerly from returning for her degree for 12 years.

“The cost wasn’t a barrier to me, and I don’t think it is to most kids. I think most kids that don’t go to community college just aren’t college-bound period,” she says.

Figuring out how to change student attitudes so they understand the expectations of the changing job market may be the solution – and might be even more difficult than getting Congress to pass one of the president’s bills.

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