Presidential visit highlights critical role community colleges play in economy

Feb. 6 was an historic day for Ivy Tech Community College. For the first time, a sitting U.S. president visited one of our campuses.

As you would expect, Ivy Tech was honored to host President Obama, but we’re even more thrilled that his message underscored the critical role community colleges play in building America’s future.

President Obama’s message comes less than one month after his America’s College Promise proposal — free tuition for every community college student maintaining a minimum of a 2.5 GPA and demonstrating progress toward completing a credential. This is modeled after the Tennessee Promise, an idea from a state now being adopted nationally by leadership in Washington, D.C.

Just as was the case in Tennessee, I and many other leaders have several reasons for supporting this proposal, but the best argument in its favor is perhaps the most pragmatic: A more-accessible community college system means more community college graduates. And more community college graduates give our employers access to more skilled talent to compete in the global economy.

While there has been a drop in unemploy-ment numbers, we will have to overcome two major barriers:

The significant gap between the skills of today’s workers versus the skills employers need.

The gap between the number of workers reaching retirement age versus the comparatively slow growth of the talent pool that will replace them.

As the president said during his visit to Ivy Tech, “Our biggest problem is that we can’t find enough workers in the fields we’re searching for.”

The K-12 education system was created more than 100 years ago, and some think a K-14 model is today’s reality. It is at least worth the debate in order to ensure the stability of our middle class. There’s no question that one key solution to rebuilding our middle class is the American community college system. President Obama alluded to two primary reasons this is true:

First, community college credentials lead to fulfilling careers. The president cited the $50,000 starting annual salary earned by those who complete Ivy Tech programs — and that’s just one example of what a community college education makes possible.

Second, community colleges are unmatched when it comes to affordability. Consider Ivy Tech’s cost: the average full-time student pays approximately $4,000 annually to attend Ivy Tech. The average cost of the other public Indiana higher education institutions is approximately more than three times the cost, even before room and board.

Those two points lead to one unmistakable conclusion: There’s no better return on investment in higher education than a community college. As Obama said more succinctly, “Don’t let anyone think that paying more means a better education.”

Obama’s visit has energized Ivy Tech’s staff and faculty to continue to be, as he stated of us, “one of the best in the country.”

Early in his remarks the president singled out one of our students, Jillian, and mentioned that her pursuit of a college degree was as much for her children as it was for herself. Then the president smiled and said of Jillian: “That’s who I get up for every day.”

I can assure you, Mr. President, that’s who we at Ivy Tech Community College get up for every day, too. That’s the promise of the American community college, and it’s the promise of a better tomorrow — for everyone, from every walk of life in our country.

Thomas J. Snyder is president of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Send comments to