The many objections to President Barack Obama's proposal for free community college tuition to qualified students ignores an important issue: We must improve the general educational level in the United States and New York.
The static over Obama's plan has included concerns over increased costs, diversion of students from senior colleges where tuition would be required, and the opinion that not all students should or need go to college.
The opinion that not everyone should attend college is held by those who believe college is for a select few, or by those who don't see the need for higher education if students go into the labor market (construction or skilled trades). That is a shortsighted view -- it stifles the education of our people and harms the economy.
The initial motivation for compulsory education laws included assuring an educated citizenry -- and that had enormous returns. Compulsory education was imposed by every state between 1852 and 1918, requiring that children between 6 and 16 attend school. While the Census Bureau estimated in 1940 that only 5 percent of the U.S. population had college degrees, the agency says that in 2011 just over 30 percent of the adult population had earned degrees. In New York, where compulsory law was adopted in 1874, about 43 percent of its citizens today have college degrees.
However, this progress is somewhat deceptive as the United States ranks 12th among 34 developed countries in attainment of higher education degrees, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This unimpressive ranking is troubling because experts project that a majority of jobs being created will require a college degree. And on Long Island it is a greater educational challenge: an even higher proportion of new jobs here is expected to require college degrees. Therefore, if the student population subdivided -- higher for the privileged and lower for the underserved -- we can expect an untenable future.
The State University of New York has since 1948 developed and nurtured a system of colleges and universities. Although SUNY enrolls 460,000 students -- more than 78,000 of them in the five institutions on Long Island -- the proportion of state dollars dedicated to capacity to enroll students has not kept pace. The legislation that gave rise to the NYSUNY 2020 Challenge Grant Program, which seeks to strengthen academic programs at state public universities and colleges, has helped stabilize institutions through planning and budgeting. However, the legislation expires in 2017. It should be extended; it enables families to plan for long-term college costs. Yet, this source alone will not help build enrollment capacity to serve increasing demand.
For the sustainability and growth of our Long Island economy, it is essential to educate as many of our young people to as high a level as possible. And for the SUNY institutions of Long Island -- Farmingdale State College, Stony Brook University and SUNY Old Westbury -- to continue to serve the best interests of the region, the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should extend the legislation to allow SUNY to continue to grow.
W. Hubert Keen is president of Farmingdale State College.