A Common Vision: America’s College Promise Relies on Bipartisan Support and PartnershipsTed Mitchell | President, American Council on Education
Never has access to higher education been more important than it is today. Employers continue to create new opportunities, but these opportunities require a postsecondary credential, and the workforce just isn’t keeping up. As a result, finding ways to minimize the barriers to postsecondary education is critical, and the federal government has proposed a solution: America’s College Promise. Following the lead of the Tennessee Promise program that launched in 2014, America’s College Promise would provide free access to two years of college education for students who work hard to achieve their credential. In this interview, United States Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell discusses the merits of the proposal and shares his thoughts on what it will take to move it from concept to reality.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is the America’s College Promise movement so important for this administration?
Ted Mitchell (TM): Nearly a century ago, a movement in this country made high school widely available to all young people. This led to rapid growth in the education, skills, and overall strength of the American workforce—driving decades of economic growth and prosperity. Much of what we gained and built as a nation throughout the 20th century was a result of that high-powered workforce, and the competitive advantage it afforded us on the rest of the world.
But today we’re not the only ones investing in education, and the global competition for both jobs and capital is fiercer than ever before. In order for America—and our workers—to compete, we need to invest again in our workforce, and position ourselves to lead the world in the 21st century. This is an economic imperative for our young people, for our communities, for our businesses, and for our entire economy. And it is incumbent on all of us to play a role.
Evo: What are the most significant challenges you see on the horizon in taking America’s College Promise from concept to reality?
TM: The America’s College Promise proposal will be a significant new investment that will be made in partnership with states. These efforts won’t be the same in every state, but helping more Americans earn college degrees is essential to building a stronger middle class and a stronger economy. Greater investments in community colleges is something that earned bipartisan support in the past, including at the state level. So we see this proposal as a win-win for responsible students, states and the economy because again, the strength of our economy is dependent on the skills of our workforce.
We recognize that there are places where we need to strengthen the quality of community colleges, and the President’s proposal is designed to spur those reforms. We also need to make sure that community colleges have strong technical and career education programs built on the workforce needs of the global economy.
This proposal is doable, and we believe that by partnering with states, we can realize the President’s vision of making two years of college as free and universal as high school.
Evo: To your mind, how might those challenges be overcome?
TM: Key leaders in both the House and Senate are saying that education is a priority. If they truly believe that and commit to working together in a bipartisan way, they can take America’s College Promise from a proposal—which has been introduced in Congress by Senator Tammy Baldwin And Representative Bobby Scott, and has more than 80 cosponsors—to a reality. Students in Tennessee and Chicago are benefitting from the free community college program, and now Oregon is offering it to its students. Hopefully, other cities and states will follow suit. The return on investment is immeasurable.
America’s College Promise provides an historic and exciting opportunity for our nation that, when fully implemented, could benefit nearly 9 million Americans each year at the more than 1,300 community colleges across the country.
Evo: What role do you think the federal government should play in creating the environment for America’s College Promise?
TM: The Department of Education and the Administration have already made historic investments in college access and affordability—from simplifying the student aid application to expanding Pell Grants and loan repayment options that cap payments based on income.
This proposal would make federal funding available to help states provide the best deal for responsible students. States could leverage the investments we have made in Pell without subtracting it from other help for college students. But still, we can’t do this work alone. We hope to continue working with Congress to design the contours of America’s College Promise and with states to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility to support their efforts and meet our shared goal.
Author Perspective: Government