Most mornings at 9:30, my laptop is on and I am speaking via Zoom to the arrangement of boxes that comprise my online class at Wilbur Wright College, City Colleges of Chicago. This is where I primarily teach humanities courses as an adjunct professor. Even though the pandemic has kept me and my students — each one inside a box on the screen — out of a physical classroom, energetic discussions can overshadow distance.
On a good day, students will articulate how a painter from Mexico, author from Nigeria or musician from India can help inform their own lives. Or I will show them how to best express these thoughts through their written compositions. They are also applying what they learn in my classes to programs ranging from health care to information technology.
So I felt disheartened a few weeks ago when a couple of U.S. senators removed the proposal for free community college tuition from the "Build Back Better" (BBB) legislation. The bill currently does include beneficial initiatives that deserve support, including increases in Pell grants and college completion funding. But the original education proposal would have been an immediate lifeline, especially in Chicago.
These students might be faceless to those legislators but they are visible to me. Many of them are first-generation college attendees from all over the world. Some have clear goals for what they will accomplish with their education and others are getting a course requirement fulfilled while figuring out their direction. A bigger federal subsidized tuition program would provide tangible benefits, and not only for these students.
In July, the public policy organization W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research published a study that describes how the entire state would gain from higher college enrollment (“Economic Benefits and Costs of Tuition-Free College in Illinois”).Students who complete a community college associate’s degree would be primary beneficiaries: Statistics point to their earning $9,000 a year more on average than their counterparts with only a high school diploma (in 2021 dollars). Meanwhile, costs to local taxpayers would be more than offset through these graduates ultimately paying more in state income taxes.
But the best educational experiences extend beyond salary and revenue numbers. They provide a way for my humanities students who are able to see people like themselves represented in art and music while learning about traditions that are different than their own. Others learn about how many cultural resources are available for everyone in Chicago. Community college has also been a foundation for students who are making positive transitions in lives that had been deeply troubled.
Unfortunately, the number of students who are pursuing these degrees has been declining these past few years. In May, Elyssa Cherney reported in the Chicago Tribune about the downturn in local college enrollment. Overall, community colleges marked a downturn of 13% and total postsecondary enrollment dropped 5.2% in the state, which is bigger than the national average. The chaos resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic is a glaring reason for this circumstance: Helping my students navigate this situation has become part of my job. But the rising cost of tuition is another big cause.
For many of my students, this financial burden is one more hurdle that they face as they attend community college classes. This is the case even with such existing grants as Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the Future Ready program. Some of the students are their families’ main means of support. Others contend with juggling class attendance and coursework with child or elder care responsibilities and the costs that come with them. Free tuition, as it was originally planned in BBB, would hardly be a handout for them. These students work hard for that financial incentive.
More federal funds to eliminate their tuition bills would also come at a time when numerous educators are working to improve the community college experience. Education professor Lorenzo Baber at Loyola University of Chicago has written valuable studies that show how such organizations as One Million Degrees and the scholarships they offer open pathways for students from neighborhoods that lack the resources of higher-priced ZIP codes. While such philanthropy is necessary, a larger-scale government initiative would help considerably more learners.
Perhaps it may be wishful thinking for free community college to be reinserted in a contentious bill that will undoubtedly go through more changes in the coming weeks. And there are already other crucial proposals that have been removed from BBB, such as adequate paid family leave. Some legislators vociferously oppose what they perceive as giveaways — especially to urban populations — and have also derided education itself.
Still, now that the plan is out in the public sphere, it should arise again. Current and future students are more than ready to make their contributions in return.
Aaron Cohen teaches humanities and English composition at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago.
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