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Dr. Donald Generals, President of Community College of Philadelphia shares the importance of free education. Photo: Al Día News

Can free community college solve society’s major issues?

Community College of Philadelphia President Dr. Generals shares the impact of free education, especially for first-gen and low-income students.

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President Biden’s 2024 budget proposal requests $90 billion for the U.S. Department of Education to be spread out over ten years to provide free community college—consisting of $500 million in a new discretionary grant program to provide two years of free community college through high-quality community college programs that lead to a four-year degree or a good-paying job. 

The budget proposal is not expected to pass Congress, although the idea of free education has been one that many have considered and advocated.

AL DÍA spoke with Dr. Donald Generals, President of the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), to discuss the longevity of community colleges and what free education, especially for first-generation and low-income students, represents in a place like Philadelphia—plagued by gun violence. 

Dr. Generals believes CCP meets all of the criteria and has made “a lot of preparation in trying to make the case of the importance of free community college at this point in the nation’s history.”

According to the Office of the Controller, Philadelphia’s gun violence has decreased by 12% since 2022. Although, it reports 107 homicides, 336 nonfatal, and 84 fatal shootings as of April 2, 2023. 

“All the social ills we suffer from are a direct result of educational inequality, as well as a lack of education,” Dr. Generals emphasized. “I think anyone that doesn’t appreciate human life, which is quite evident right now, is because they lack the educational grounding and understanding of the importance of life and what comes after you commit some kind of crime.” 

The gun violence continues in Philadelphia, with many looking to the next mayor for ways to address the many issues Philadelphians face.

Although education plays a crucial role in society, Dr. Generals does not attribute education as the sole reason for gun violence, adding poverty and exposure to crime are “huge factors…of the social ills that we suffer from.”

CCP has been taking steps to provide aid to low-income students. Two years ago, CCP introduced the Octavius Catto Scholarship, an anti-poverty initiative designed to put more Philadelphians on the path to success at CCP. It also includes costs associated with food, transportation, and books. 

Catto Scholars will have access to career coaches, advisors, and to resources like affordable housing, child care, and other services the student may need. 

There have been many arguments that Biden’s proposal encourages students to obtain a college degree instead of applying to trade programs. It is worth noting that Gov. Shapiro signed an executive order removing four-year college degree requirements, but many institutions, including CCP, offer a few trade programs. Dr. Generals explains that access to trade programs, or Catto Scholarship and free tuition increases tuition. 

“I think if they are looking for evidence that it works, they can come to see us, and we can show them that it does work,” he assured. “It does not devalue. I know, that’s one of the arguments. I think it's a specious argument. I always like to point out that high schools used to be at a cost before they became a public good.”

CCP also provides financial aid assistance for low-income students. Although, financial aid does not cover programs like welding, dental assistant, and electrical mechanic, which are non credit certificate programs. 

“I think the purpose of free community colleges is to bolster efforts towards workforce development, and we have strategic directions relative to that,” said Dr. Generals. “We have already made investments in that area. I think closing the equity gap is at least a part of that.”

Workforce readiness is imperative to CCP, which prides itself on providing students with exposure within the field of interest. Dr. Generals mentions, “you can't be a nurse if you don’t like biology or if you don’t like the smell of the human body,” therefore, the college prepares students through the first-year experience courses through advising. 

According to a recent poll by Campaign for Free College Tuition, shows that in the last five years, the number of individuals in favor of free college tuition has increased since November 2018—80% support free education as of January 2023, with Hispanics leading this idea with 90% and African Americans with 87%—a sentiment echoed by 93% of Democrats, 68% of Republicans, and 73% of Independents supporting to some extent the idea.  

“I wouldn’t be a college president if I didn’t have an education. I think my own personal well-being, not just monetarily speaking but also my health, the resources, and the lifestyle that I can provide for myself and my family, my wife, and my kids are all a result of the education that I have,” Dr. Generals concluded. 

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