Free 2-year college: Great deal for students, public

President Obama has a good idea: free community college. But Washington’s Legislature has largely beat him to it.

In most respects, this state’s lawmakers haven’t covered themselves in glory funding higher education. After the Great Recession hit, they relentlessly shifted the cost of college to students, ratcheting up tuition while squeezing the schools themselves.

But the Legislature did try to compensate by raising financial aid. Roughly 70,000 students are getting state need grants, which are among the nation’s most generous financial aid deals.

Washington also offers the innovative College Bound Scholarship, which promises full tuition – for both two-year and four-year schools – to low-income students who sign up in the seventh and eighth grades. Half the state’s students are eligible. That promise is conditional, though: Participants have to maintain a C average, graduate from high school and stay out of trouble with the law.

Launched in 2007, it’s proven a resounding success. A report released in March concluded that low-income students enrolled in College Bound were entering higher education at the same rate as their middle-class peers. A December report suggested that the program was cutting the high school dropout rate.

For an anti-poverty initiative, this is as good as it gets. A student who earns a two-year degree is likely to earn substantially more and be unemployed substantially less than a student who finishes only high school.

Free college tuition for low-income students has multiple virtues. Perhaps the most important is the seed it plants in the minds of kids who might have assumed their families could never afford higher education. Many students with high potential have parents and grandparents who never attended college. They may assume – wrongly – that people like them don’t belong in college.

Awareness of the available financial aid can change their thinking. College Bound in particular is designed to open a bright future to them while they are still in middle school – young enough to apply themselves to college-track courses.

We’re accustomed to thinking of “basic education” as the province of the K-12 system. The Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision in 2012 was all about ample funding for kindergarten through high school. K-12 has formidable lobbies and a constitutional mandate behind it.

But the 21st century is a far different place than the people who wrote the state constitution lived in. It’s a far different place than the 1980s. To succeed in today’s tech-based, communication-intensive economy, students need more than high school. An abundance of research has also shown that many kids need attention when they are 3 or 4 – well before they get to kindergarten – in order to hang on in elementary school.

Instead of K-12, we should be talking about E-14: early learning through the first two years of college. As the Legislature hunts for funding to satisfy the McCleary mandate, it must not neglect either higher education or pre-kindergarten programs.

Two-year schools are an especially good public investment. In this state, they do a superb job preparing students for high-paying jobs or four-year degrees. Transfer students, for example, graduate from four-year colleges at the same rate as students who enrolled in those schools as freshmen.

Higher education as a whole is as important as the public schools. For students from low-income homes, the first two years ought to be cost as much as the public schools – nothing.