Community college has become an affordable alternative for many, but try telling that to any of the single mothers at Passaic County College.
“We have 1,800 of them here at the college, and if you’re earning $29,000 a year, you are not eligible for any financial aid,” said Steven Rose, president of Passaic County College. “And when you think of someone trying to support a child earning $29,000 a year, even if our total cost for a year is only $3,500, it may as well be $35,000.”
It’s one reason why Rose believes President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community college free or nearly free for all Americans, highlighted during last week’s State of the Union address, could revolutionize education and bring it up to speed with the times.
“One hundred years ago, we didn’t have universal high school in this country. If a parent wanted to get their children a high school education, they had to send them to a private school and pay for it,” Rose said. “We’re certainly getting to a point where some college is going to be necessary for almost any job.”
The giant concern, of course, is where the money will come from and how Congress will take to the plan. The initial proposal from the Obama administration indicates the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the tab, leaving states to cover the remainder.
“It depends upon how it’s funded. That would be one of the question marks,” said John B. Wilson, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey. “It’s a pretty expensive proposition.”
Still, the proposal was welcome news to stakeholders last week. Rose said programs such as Pell Grants and tuition aid grants are “more than adequate to handle the more needy students,” but it’s still those who seem less needy on paper — such as working single mothers — that may fall through the cracks when the reality of a situation is introduced.
Rose also said the problem is broader than just single-parent households, and he hit on a demographic that was the focus of much of Obama’s speech: the middle class.
“We see all the statistics: They don’t have savings; they haven’t saved for retirement and certainly not for their children’s education, so this is a really interesting proposal and I think it can revolutionize all of higher education in a very positive way,” he said.
He added that Obama’s proposed program could act as an economic stimulus.
“When you look at what’s already being spent on Pell Grants and what the states are already spending on their programs, we’re not sure exactly how much it’s going to cost,” Rose said. “But we kept hearing there are lots of jobs going unfilled because they don’t have qualified people to do them. I think this is one of those economic stimulus things that could pay for itself.