As college seniors were mailing graduation announcements and picking up caps and gowns at campus bookstores across America, House Republicans unveiled their 2013 budget plan.
Buried within its pages was a call for allowing interest rates to double on government-subsidized student loans. Students who borrowed the maximum would pay an additional $1,000 in interest every year.
The GOP proposal couldn’t have come at a worse time. Just half of college graduates have found full-time jobs since 2006, a Rutgers University study showed last month. The average graduate owes $25,000 in student loans; many can’t make the payments.
But Republicans eventually relented. Lower interest rates on student loans were extended.
Still, a college education is becoming unaffordable for many Americans. While the cost of living has doubled since 1982, college tuitions have spiked 439 percent, Money Magazine reported in 2009.
Action is needed. The federal government should offer free tuition for all public universities, community colleges and technical schools.
But it won’t – not while strict partisanship rules over Washington.
If we want to extend the Indiana Constitution’s promise of free public education beyond high school, we’ll have to do it ourselves.
This community can. We have the tools right in front of us. We can tear down all financial barriers impeding the path to the middle class for every child in Howard County.
We can offer our high school graduates free tuition to Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana University Kokomo or Purdue’s College of Technology.
By doing so, we can build this community’s percentage of college graduates and prepare for any economic opportunities and challenges ahead.
Other communities have provided their students free tuition. Kalamazoo, Mich., is one.
In 2006, the “Kalamazoo Promise” began paying tuition to Michigan’s public universities and community colleges for local students. After five years, the Kalamazoo Gazette reported 90 percent of high school graduates had enrolled in college, and 85 percent who started at a four-year college had earned a degree or remained in school.
Between 2005 and 2010, enrollment in Kalamazoo public schools rose 20 percent, the Upjohn Institute reports.
“By creating incentives for current residents to remain in the district and for new residents (especially those with children) to move in, the scholarship program is expected eventually to bring about a tightening in the slack housing market and higher property values,” according to the institute. “The Promise also makes the community more attractive for businesses seeking to invest, expand, or relocate ....”
Ron Kitchens, chief executive of Southwest Michigan First, a Kalamazoo economic development group, has firsthand knowledge of the tuition program’s effect on local employment.
“In what has been the worst economy in America, we’ve seen the creation of almost 12,000 new jobs in this region,” he told a Fox News affiliate in 2010. “Without the Kalamazoo Promise, we would be a city verging on bankruptcy. What people forget is that education is really economic development.”
That concept isn’t lost on the newly formed Howard County College Success Coalition. Its goal is to educate area high school students and their parents of the necessity of post-secondary education, whether it’s at a college, a technical school or in a trade.
Community organizations across the county will meet with the coalition’s steering committee Wednesday. The group should make free college tuition at Ivy Tech, IU Kokomo or the College of Technology one of its goals for Howard County high school graduates.
The annual price tag for such a program would be millions of dollars annually. Ivy Tech Chancellor Steve Daily estimates it would cost $1.3 million each year to enroll 400 students. IU Kokomo Chancellor Michael Harris puts tuition at $2 million annually for 460 students.
Many will question our ability to afford that.
But the College Success Coalition could seek non-profit status and establish a scholarship fund at the Community Foundation of Howard County. City and county government could pledge economic development income tax money toward the initiative.
With the promise of public money, the coalition could ask the Lilly Endowment to contribute to our innovative, communitywide effort.
Would full or partial tuitions to our local institutions then be affordable?
Twenty-eight percent of Americans have a four-year college degree, but just 19.7 percent of Howard County residents do. Between 2000 and 2010, the county lost 10,000 jobs. More homes have been sold through sheriff’s sales these past few years than on the open market.
Free tuition for high school graduates will make Howard County more attractive to potential employers and new families. It will usher hundreds of residents, unencumbered by college debt, into the middle class.
For this community’s long-term economic survival, can we afford not to make such a promise to our students and their parents?