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Why this former U.S. education secretary believes community college should be free

This week, we heard the case against President Biden's plan to create free tuition for community college students nationwide. And now, we hear from John King, former U.S. secretary of education under President Obama, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to be Maryland’s next governor. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss why he believes community college should be free.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the debate over providing free tuition for community college students.

    Last night, we heard the case against President Biden's effort to create a nationwide free program. As a reminder, his plan starts with $109 billion to cover full tuition for community college. The plan also includes an $85 billion investment in Pell Grants for students in need at both two-and four-year colleges. And there's another $62 billion for resources to help students complete their degree.

    Tonight, we get a different perspective on this proposal for our series on Rethinking College.

    I'm joined by John King, the former U.S. secretary of education under President Barack Obama and former New York state education commissioner. He's now president of The Education Trust. It's an advocacy group working to close opportunity gaps from preschool through college. He also is seeking the Democratic nomination to be Maryland's next governor.

    John King, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thank you for being here.

    So, you like President Biden's proposal for free community college, free tuition. Why?

  • John King:

    Well, it's hugely important.

    If you look at the economic recovery after the 2008 financial crisis, nearly all of the new jobs that were created went to people with some level of post-secondary education. That might have been a four-year degree, often was an associate's degree, or even a career and technical education certificate.

    So we know that investing in community college can help to spur economic recovery. We also know it improves people's life circumstances. Folks with a college degree earn more than a million dollars more over the course of their lifetime.

    So this is really an investment. I know folks want to talk about it as an expense, but we really have to think about it as an investment. The evidence is the return on investment of more students with community college degrees will more than pay for the cost of this investment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, last night, as you know, we spoke with another former secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, who had the job under President George W. Bush.

    Her argument, though, against this is that so many of these students in community college don't complete their time, they don't get to the associate degree, and the money would be better spent in other ways.

    What about that?

  • John King:

    Well, two things.

    One, we know that, for many community college students, the very reason they don't complete is they don't have the financial support they need. And what President Biden envisions here is really a state-federal partnership to get students the resources they need, not just to start, but to finish.

    There's also, as you mentioned, the $62 billion investment in additional supports for students, better advising, access to childcare, access to mental health services, the kinds of supports that evidence shows greatly increase completion, particularly for low-income students and students of color.

    So this is a very carefully thought-through package of reforms. As you know, states have disinvested in public higher ed over the last few decades. This is an opportunity to change that by saying public higher education is going to help us build a stronger economy for the long term.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We heard from Margaret Spellings last night, John King, the argument that, when students go to what she called a traditional comprehensive university, like an HBCU, historically Black college, they get more support, as she called it, more likely to get what she called help for a trajectory into a livelihood, the kind of thing that just doesn't exist in many community colleges.

  • John King:

    Well, look, this plan also includes a very significant investment in historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.

    The reality is, we need a mix of strategies. Where you have some students who are only going to want that community college degree, they're going to need very specific skills to advance in their career, whether that's an emerging field, like cybersecurity, or a traditional field like logistics.

    So, this is an opportunity to help support folks who may need this degree to better support their family, to move up at their job. I think, really, what President Biden is aiming for here is a vision for a society that helps people improve their own lot in life through education. And shouldn't we all support that?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just finally, John King, I want to quote a conservative economist, Glenn Hubbard, who wrote a piece about this, and arguing against free tuition in community colleges.

    He said, if you do this, it's just going to flood colleges with students and make them less inclined to experiment or to collaborate. How about that?

  • John King:

    I mean, that strikes me as deeply misguided.

    I think we have some good evidence here. Actually, Governor Haslam, the Republican governor of Tennessee, was the first to really lead on this with a statewide community college tuition-free program. And the evidence is, it's attracting, yes, more students, but it's also helping to increase completion rates. It's increasing the transfer rates from two-year colleges to four-year colleges.

    And it's creating new pathways to economic opportunity for folks who historically have been locked out of economic success. This is a Republican idea that President Biden is advancing because it's good for the long-term health of our economy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John King, former secretary of education, we are — it's an important debate. We are very glad to have you here to participate in it.

    Thank you very much.

  • John King:

    Thanks for the opportunity.

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