One summer about a million years ago, when I was 18, I went to community college to take some classes to transfer back to the university I was attending. At the time, I didn’t think much about the experience or what a place like that meant to the people who took those courses with me.
The classes, one in English and another in speech, as far as I was concerned were “cake” courses that I could breeze through without paying much attention, and focus on everything else going on in my mid-adolescent life. Truth is I aced both classes without much effort.
Looking back now, there was much more to that place than I realized, and it meant much more to the people sitting in those classrooms with me than I thought back then.
So a few weeks ago, during his State of the Union address, President Obama talked about opening the door to free community college for anybody who wanted to go for two years. It could potentially get millions halfway to a bachelor’s degree, giving them advanced skillsets and training to move the economy forward. It could lift millions more out of poverty and in all probability reduce incarceration rates and recidivism rates for African American males in every urban community, where they are targeted for lockup.
With this proposal, Obama may have come up with the best idea for young men and women in this country since the G.I. Bill.
The likelihood is that you are far too young to remember the effect of that piece of legislation, but historians credit it with changing the nation’s economy and future. Originally called the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, returning veterans from World War II used its benefits to obtain education that they would otherwise not have been able to afford, placing them in positions for higher paying jobs, advancing productivity and ultimately creating a middle class explosion that made the United States possibly the most dominant economic power in global history.
According to the Veterans Administration, by the time the original GI Bill ended in 1956, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II veterans had taken advantage of its benefits. Even today, 400,000 men and women are in school right now, thanks to the benefits of the 1986 Montgomery GI Bill, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
So let’s move it up to 2015. The generation that benefited from that act have largely passed away, now part of history themselves. The generation of young people now are in the same boat, with many unable to afford higher education and many of those that do have decades of debt strapped to it.
As much as 44% of all undergraduate students attend community college in this country, more than ever before. That means the demand for this type of education to obtain skills training or as a stepping stone to a four-year degree is high. People clearly see that education is the path to advancement, and in urban areas, where money for school is scarce, for an untold number of brothers, it can mean the difference between gainful employment and hanging out on the block every day.
Numbers from the U.S. Department of Education tell us the black male college graduation rate is about 33.1% and that’s of the brothers that do make it to college. About 1.4 million are currently enrolled in post-secondary education. Of the 4 million blacks in this country that hold a four-year degree, 1.9 million are black males.
Studies have shown that in many of these cases, black men defer their education because of cost and debt, among other factors. If there were legislation that would subsidize education at the community college level, it would take that pressure off many who would otherwise be looking at the front door, then the pavement.
If the GI Bill took millions of young men and turned them into individual economic engines, powering a the world’s largest ever middle class, think of what legislation that gives people two years of free education in our technological economy could do. Imagine the next Twitter, Apple, or Virgin Atlantic being started by someone who went to community college off this idea.
That summer long ago, the people I sat those classrooms with came from a diverse background. One man was a plant worker taking daytime classes. Another was a nurse’s aide who wanted to go on to a four-year degree. Still another was an ex-crack dealer who was searching for a permanent way out of the game. And another was a mom who had become pregnant in high school and had to drop out, but had obtained a GED and was looking to move forward. Others were college students like me who just wanted to take summer classes.
I remember that going to that school and obtaining an associate’s degree meant the difference between advancement for them and languishing where they were with a lack of opportunity and perhaps hope. Something I didn’t even take that seriously was precious to my classmates and, to be honest, I had a new respect for them by the time it was over.
After the summer session classes ended, I never saw any of them again. My sophomore year had begun and college swept by in what now seems the blink of an eye. It’s possible that some of them stopped going, but it’s just as possible that they did well, much better than they would have if the school wasn’t there for them.
Given the chance, lots of people in our communities who have little or no access to education after high school might advance the places where we live and maybe even provide jobs if a boost like this became available.
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray.