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Game changer: 'Free' education at junior colleges
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California community colleges once were free when it came to class units.

Today, you pay $46 per unit. For a student carrying a full load of 15 units that comes to $690 a semester. That sounds like a bargain compared to the same unit load at California State University, Stanislaus that would cost $2,736, or at the University of California, Merced where it would cost $5,610.

Compared to the CSU and UC tuition, the fees at community colleges such as Delta or Modesto JC seem reasonable.

But if you’re making $12.50 an hour and aren’t eligible for grants it can be a daunting challenge.

President Obama is revving up a State of the Union announcement aimed at making community college free across the country — with strings attached. Students would have to go to school, at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 grade point average, and participating states cover 25 percent of the tuition while the federal government would pick up the rest.

Eligible community colleges would have to have transferable credits to four-year institutions or offer occupational programs that have high graduation rates plus provide skills that are in high demand by employers.

Critics are all over the proposal like flies. They argue it is another federal entitlement program that takes away state control. They also contend it rewards many community colleges that that do a poor job of meeting the needs of non-traditional students who tend to be older and have to work while going to school. They also say there is no measurement being proposed to determine the success of occupational programs.

Such criticism comes from a true upper/middle-class perspective and a borderline elitist attitude.

Delta and MJC have strong transfer programs. They also have highly regarded vocational training programs ranging from nursing to ag mechanics with a strong placement rate after graduation. Delta and MJC aren’t aberrations among the state’s 112 community colleges.

If you doubt that, consider the following statistics:

• 29 percent of University of California graduates transferred from a community college.

• 51 percent of California State University graduates transferred from a community college.

• 48 percent of all the students currently in UC bachelor’s degree programs for engineering, science, biology and math transferred from a community college.

• 70 percent of California’s nurses are educated at a community college.

• 80 percent of California’s law enforcement, firefighting, and emergency medical technician personnel are educated at community colleges.

Instead of making education assistance at the community college level driven by financial need it makes it universal as long as students keep up their end of the bargain. And while those that wouldn’t qualify for aid for books and other fees would still have those out of pocket expenses, reducing the cost by $690 a semester is a big thing for many who are on the edge financially and keeping them from pursuing additional education and training.

Kindergarten through 12th grade education doesn’t provide graduates with marketable skills in specific vocations but instead provide a foundation of general skills.

In many ways a trained workforce of young people especially in skills that are in demand such as mechanics, nursing and such that do not require four-year degrees can reduce other financial burdens on taxpayers. Not everyone needs a college degree to succeed in life but at the same time it is clear they need some type of advanced training/education to get into the doors of many jobs. There are only so many jobs writing code available. At the same time, specific vocational skill shortages tend to be regional which makes community colleges much better suited to provide the training.

A diesel mechanic shortage for railroads is one example. Obviously community colleges close to railroad yards and other train maintenance centers would be in a better position to establish such programs and have success.

Such a program as Obama envisions would eliminate the need for tuition aid that goes to those currently on a financial need basis at community colleges. The money would simply be shifted from one government program to another.

And while a clear argument can be made that a program such as the president proposals would be better left to the state to decide and fully fund, it fails to take into account the fallacy of residency barriers.

Sierra College in Rocklin back in the 1970s realized they were getting hundreds of students who were getting around the out-of-state registration fees that came to several thousand dollars a semester. They simply established residence in California before enrolling saying they had met the minimum number of years of living here.

The Tennessee example that Obama references in which that state provides two years of free community college education to state residents is not as problematic as what Sierra College faced.

Some states are a magnet for out-of-state students who can easily game the residency requirements and do so because either the schools are better or the state itself has stronger appeal. No offense meant but California would obviously have more pull with most younger people from other states than Tennessee.

At the end of the day, Obama’s proposal has merit.

And while steps have to be taken such as making sure that community colleges don’t play the four-year university game of jacking up tuition because they can get more federal dollars or student loan money guaranteed by Uncle Sam, the overall concept is worth exploring.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.