A Supporting Role for Tom Hanks and Community Colleges

By Shana Kennedy-Salchow

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has pro­posed to make the first two years of com­mu­ni­ty col­leges (CC) free, and Tom Han­ks thinks it’s a good idea. His New York Times op-ed takes us back to his Chabot Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege days when he joined “vet­er­ans back from Viet­nam, women of every mar­i­tal and mater­nal sta­tus return­ing to school, mid­dle-aged men want­i­ng to improve their employ­ment prospects and pay­checks.” Back then edu­ca­tion at a com­mu­ni­ty col­lege was free, but since then tuition has gone through the roof, mak­ing it out of reach for mil­lions of Americans.


Although we have yet to see the details of Pres­i­dent Obama’s pro­pos­al and are already start­ing to won­der if it has any chance with Con­gress giv­en its esti­mat­ed $60 bil­lion price tag, we should cel­e­brate the thought and the impact it could have. We should also pay spe­cial atten­tion to how this pro­pos­al or state-lev­el imi­ta­tions of it can be used to bet­ter sup­port the mil­lions of stu­dents who strug­gle aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly in com­mu­ni­ty col­leges and nev­er graduate.

After grad­u­at­ing from Chabot Col­lege, Han­ks went on to attend the State Uni­ver­si­ty in Sacra­men­to – a four-year col­lege – but did not fin­ish. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, his expe­ri­ence is a bit of an excep­tion since just over a third of CC stu­dents receive a cre­den­tial from a two- or four-year insti­tu­tion with­in six years, as a 2010 study has shown. Pro­vid­ing tuition will decrease the num­ber of stu­dents who have to work while going to school, a lead­ing cul­prit for non-com­ple­tion. But stu­dents should be enti­tled to pro­grams that focus on their aca­d­e­m­ic as well as non-aca­d­e­m­ic needs. For this CCs require tutor­ing pro­grams, addi­tion­al sup­port class­es in aca­d­e­m­ic sub­jects (not reme­di­al, non-cred­it bear­ing cours­es!), and pro­grams that coor­di­nate aca­d­e­m­ic expec­ta­tions with local high schools. They need sup­port­ive coach­es and coun­selors who reg­u­lar­ly check in with them to see that they have com­plet­ed the right cours­es and accessed the resources avail­able to them. These mea­sures cost mon­ey but need to be a part of Obama’s CC pro­pos­al if it is going to be suc­cess­ful. Tom Han­ks wantsvet­er­ans, from Iraq and Afghanistan this time, as well as anoth­er gen­er­a­tion of moth­ers, sin­gle par­ents and work­ers who have been out of the job mar­ket” to have the same chances as the baby boomers. If Pres­i­dent Oba­ma wants Amer­i­cans to have sto­ries sim­i­lar to Hank’s, he should push for the sup­port­ing role CCs need to take, not just the poten­tial increase in access.

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Shana Kennedy-Sal­chow is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty in Berlin. Pre­vi­ous­ly she worked in edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy at the fed­er­al, state, and local lev­els in the U.S. as well as as an ele­men­tary school teacher.