Let states lead on college access

President Barack Obama shakes hands after speaking at Pellissippi State Community College Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, in Knoxville, Tenn. Obama is promoting a plan to make publicly funded community college available to all students. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

President Obama is right in his view that college education is increasingly key to getting and keeping middle class jobs. And his support for community colleges is welcome acknowledgement of their vital role in educating students of all ages and with all kinds of daily schedules.

South Carolina can attest to the value of its community and technical colleges for affordable education that can lead immediately to a skilled job, or on to four year colleges.

But the president’s proposal to make community college education free for students who meet basic standards would create a new federal entitlement costing billions of dollars when it really isn’t necessary. The feds should leave the community college system to the states, while assisting with financial aid to students who really need it.

Already the federal Pell Grant program covers most of the cost of community college education in many states. If Washington wants to help, it can make a difference with Pell Grant improvements. Former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, now a Republican senator from Tennessee, cites areas where the Pell Grant system needs work.

That includes the complexity of the application process and finding the federal funds to cover the program’s costs. Sen. Alexander notes that 92 percent of community college students in Tennessee are eligible for Pell Grants.

Mr. Obama chose Knoxville to make his announcement on Monday because the state’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, working with the business community, community colleges and the state legislature, has put together an ambitious new program called Tennessee Promise. It provides a free community college education to qualified students together with a support structure of volunteer mentors to help them keep focused. The first enrollment period started with the 2014 fall semester.

Another part of the Tennessee program sends instructors from community colleges into public high schools to teach mathematics, with the successful result of reducing the need for remedial courses at the colleges.

The Tennessee program is the result of several years of hard, focused work on creating a plan with the opportunity to succeed. Private sector involvement at the state level is a vital component and source of funds.

As President Obama said while announcing his “America’s College Promise” plan to expand the Tennessee experiment nationally, the effort to create more educational opportunity is “not going to be the same in every state.”

That argues against a top-down program in which the federal government calls the shots. Instead, Congress should find ways to encourage the states to find their own solutions to expand educational opportunity focused on state needs.