Obama, Weingarten in new push for free community college

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Universal, free community college is edging closer and closer to reality.

President Obama announced Sept. 9 that his America's College Promise proposal, a guarantee of two years of free community college for any qualified student, is now backed by a new College Promise campaign and an advisory board of 32 education advocates—including AFT President Randi Weingarten. The board will work with businesses, charities and nonprofits, as well as the colleges themselves, to ensure students get the training, opportunity and education they need to be successful. It will be chaired by Jill Biden, who is a community college professor as well as the wife of the vice president.

President Obama and Jill Biden at Macomb college"For every young person willing to work hard, I want two years of community college to be as free and universal as high school education is today," said Obama. He launched the campaign at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich. There, AFT members of the Macomb Community College Faculty Organization (for full-time faculty) and the Association of Adjunct Faculty of Macomb Community College are working with students to ensure they get the education they need to move on to four-year college, find jobs, or refresh or restart their careers. (Watch a video of the event.)

Obama praised community colleges as "the heart of the American dream" and called out Macomb as one of the best, most innovative schools among them. "You work directly with local employers and labor unions to make sure students are getting the skills they need to get a job right now," he told the Macomb faculty, staff, students and administrators gathered at the event. He described the hands-on training the college offers, underscoring the benefits of "earn as you learn" programs, where students can simultaneously attend college and draw a paycheck.

Weingarten and Obama selfieOn a larger scale, Obama announced a national Department of Labor program that will distribute $175 million in apprenticeship grants to 46 organizations, institutions and businesses pledging to train workers in healthcare, information technology, advanced manufacturing and other job-ready fields. Not only do workers who have completed an apprenticeship earn $300,000 more over the course of their lifetimes than those who do not apprentice, he said, such training benefits the entire country. "Education has always been the secret sauce," he said, "the secret to America's success."

Weingarten, who celebrated Labor Day with Obama just days before the Macomb event, is a longtime advocate of free community college, and would push the notion of tuition-free, debt-free higher education even further. "As the largest higher education faculty union in the nation, we are honored to be a part of this board as a means to helping make community college available and free to hardworking students, strengthening our workforce and boosting investment in community colleges," she said. "Americans are asking for action, and our union is fighting so that American students who want to attend college can do so without incurring crippling debt."

[Virginia Myers]