In June I led a delegation of Indiana educators, business leaders, and philanthropists to Washington, D.C. to learn about College Promise, the Obama administration's non-partisan grassroots effort to build widespread support for a free community college education for responsible students throughout the nation.
I believe free community college will be a game changer, similar to FDR's G.I. Bill in 1944 and Lyndon Johnson's championship of Pell Grants for lower income students in 1965.
Forty percent of college students attend one of the nation's 1,100 community colleges, and a third of those students are the first in their family to attend college. Our country's future depends on a better-educated workforce. In the next ten years, 6-10 jobs will require more than a high school diploma, while only 40 percent of U.S. adults 25-64 are adequately prepared for this work. Community colleges are on the front lines, providing both degrees and certificates that pull people out of poverty and yield middle-class wages.
On Wednesday, I joined President Obama and other community college presidents and supporters at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich.,to announce how "Heads Up America," will work to create a grassroots movement around College Promise, the national free community college initiative that will transform the lives of millions of students.
As there is no "one-size-fits-all" College Promise program, local communities will be encouraged to create a program that answers the particular needs of their college and students. The goal is to share best practices in program design, college access and completion strategies, funding mechanisms, implementation, outcomes and impact.
America's College Promise Act of 2015 has been introduced by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Va.). States and communities are urged to introduce their own College Promise legislation. Tennessee and Oregon have already implemented programs without federal support.
As President of Ivy Tech, the nation's largest singly accredited community college system, I have seen firsthand how this education changes lives.
• Keith Howard, who worked in a factory for 20 years, was laid off with no possibility of getting a call-back. He made a career change and earned an Associate of Science in Nursing degree cum laude with a 3.5 GPA.
• Brandon Cavanaugh, a U.S. Army veteran deployed to Afghanistan, earned an associate degree in Education and now works at an area resident facility for young people who have emotional and behavioral issues.
• Keri Smith dropped out of school in the 8th grade. She enrolled in adult education classes and then went on to Ivy Tech to get a degree with honors in medical assisting, despite health and family issues, and financial troubles.
• Nicholas Safana earned a degree in criminal justice with a 3.93 GPA and now attends Valparaiso University with $92,000 in scholarships. He wants to help others battling poverty and abuse.
• After being out of school for 20 years, Lisa McMaster earned an Associate in paralegal studies despite caring for her father, who battled cancer and died, and her fiancé suffering a heart attack.
What all these students share in common is that they had a dream of turning their lives around. Ivy Tech helped them achieve this goal.
Many community college students already have their education paid for through Pell Grants, but there are other costs such as transportation, childcare and school materials that they incur. There are two models for distributing funding for College Promise programs. First-dollar programs mean that funds are provided to students first, or before any other grant or awarded funding. Last-dollar programs mean students would draw upon any available public funding before being awarded College Promise funding. States would determine what works best for their students.
I am proud to join a national board headed by Dr. Jill Biden, a passionate advocate for community colleges, and Gov. Jim Geringer of Wyoming, who initiated College Promise in his state where he served as a two-term governor, along with leaders and supporters of community colleges who will bring College Promise to every state.
There are already bi-partisan efforts in Tennessee, Oregon, Chicago, Miami and Kalamazoo to initiate this effort. We will issue a report "State of Free Community College in America" that will survey the current landscape, analyze stakeholder efforts and make recommendations for propelling this movement forward.
Indiana will be one of ten states charged with promoting College Promise. Our program is called Hoosier Promise. We look forward to working with our statewide community, which is already supportive of our efforts.
We have particularly strong ties with Indiana's manufacturing sector. They don't want to see jobs shipped overseas, and neither do we, so we train workers for our increasingly high-tech and highly productive factories. Often all students need is a certificate rather than a two-year degree to get a well-paying job in manufacturing.
We need to put aside political infighting and join together to make free community college possible for everyone. It will benefit us as a nation, and help secure the future for millions of Americans.