CBC puts support behind national drive to make some college free

Tri-City Herald file

A high school diploma is no longer the key to landing a good job, says Columbia Basin College’s student body president.

The United States changed dramatically when education advocates pushed state and federal lawmakers in the late 1800s to make 12 years of primary and secondary education compulsory, said David Ruiz at a Monday press conference at CBC. It helped to make the country one of the wealthiest in the world, he said.

But today, more jobs require post-secondary education, even if it’s just a certificate or associate degree.

“If we’re going to keep up, we’ve got to innovate,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz and CBC President Rich Cummins said the national initiative America’s College Promise, which aims to make the first two years of college as universal and debt-free as high school, is a ticket to meeting the demand for a more skilled work force and educating a population that is increasingly being priced out of higher education.

“I just think it’s really important to have these conversations because it’s about prosperity in our community,” Cummins said.

College Promise, which President Obama launched earlier this year, would attempt to reduce the financial burden of attending college. Federal, state and local funding would cover the direct costs of college, specifically tuition, before scholarships or Pell grants were applied. That would free up money for the indirect costs of college, such as transportation, housing and textbooks.

Last month, the College Promise Campaign began asking community college administrators and others in higher education to start promoting the idea of covering the first years of college to lawmakers at all levels. This week, Obama and others in his administration are touring the country to promote the plan.

Obama isn’t the first to propose making college, specifically community college, easier on students’ wallets, Cummins said. Oregon and Tennessee have implemented similar programs, and there are communities around the country moving ahead with covering some of the expenses of higher education. Cummins lauded Washington state lawmakers for providing enough money to higher education to cut tuition costs at public institutions this year.

But that doesn’t diminish the need for America’s College Promise — people still need help getting trained to compete for jobs that will allow them to support families and their communities, officials said. The College Board found tuition and fees at public four-year universities grew 21 percent from 2005-10.

“The middle class is being squeezed out,” Cummins said.

Ruiz, who graduated from Pasco High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in computer informatics from the University of Washington before returning to CBC to study cybersecurity, received support that allowed him to pursue higher education. That’s not the case for many, though, and the dearth of qualified workers is growing.

Federal legislation has been introduced, but officials have noted that any effort to increase government spending to cover college costs could be a tall order, especially in a Republican-controlled Congress. That legislation is estimated to cost $80 billion over 10 years if it is implemented.

Students would have to meet academic and other requirements to qualify for financial help and complete a degree or certificate that could be put toward a job, Ruiz said. Community colleges, which likely would receive much of the funding, would have to step up as well to ensure they provide quality training and education.

“It’s not a charity; it provides an opportunity,” he said.

Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402;; Twitter: @_tybeaver