12:05 PM

Is Obama's #FreeCommunityCollege Proposal Viable?


Lester Lefton's message at Cengage education conference, "You have the power."

Chris Knight reports on the prospects for President Obama's offer of free community college courses.

By guest blogger Chris Knight 

Fixing education requires more than just broader access, according to a gathering of top academics, industry experts and student entrepreneurs in San Francisco earlier this week.

Thursday night on his way from Detroit, MI to Knoxville, TN for the last leg of his 3-city tour to preview his State of the Union address on January 20, President Obama announced on Air Force One that he plans to make community college accessible for everyone who's willing to work for it.

He's asking to pass new legislation for two years of community college for all.

In a video posted on Facebook alongside a new campaign (#FreeCommunityCollege), President Obama says that his new proposal, to be presented on national TV tomorrow, is "...not just for kids. Everybody needs to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages and better benefits."

Obama will reveal further details about the community college plan in front of thousands of students gathered at Tennessee's Pellissippi State Community College between 10am and 2pm ET Friday, streamed live from http://www.whitehouse.gov/live.

Obama will likely face opposition from a Republican-led congress. And some education-industry experts don't believe that broadened, government-funded access to education, will be effective on its own. A successful implementation is far more complex said education experts gathered at a San Francisco conference organized by Cengage, the Boston-based textbooks publishing giant. 

The conference drew college professors, students and educational entrepreneurs from around the country, to discuss: how to reinvent higher education; address challenges faced by today's college students; and fix a US educational system many have called "broken."

During the opening keynote, CEO Michael Hansen said, in anticipation of Obama's proposal:

"Community colleges are the core and centerpiece of the U.S higher education system, and dropout rates are way too high. I believe that with the appropriate use of technology and a focus on the student experience, we can actually materially affect those dropout rates."

"They [community colleges] are the heartbeat, the backbone of the education system, and we now have the ability to, with content and technology, make them a lot more effective. We need to make sure that we have a workforce that is educated, fit for purpose, and ready to compete in an increasingly global environment."

Other academics and innovators championed a similar view that technology and a focus on student experience and their motivations and learning preferences can materially affect dropout rates and improve post-grad job placements.

Some key challenges:

- Recent surveys show that 42 percent of college students drop out because they're not prepared properly or they learn in different ways.

- Adjunct professors teach about 70 percent of the courses, working 60+ hours a week moving from school to school.

- Students lucky enough to graduate with two-year or four-year degrees face some of the lowest chances of gaining employment in their chosen fields in the last 50 years.

Among the keynote speakers was Lester Lefton, (above)
 recently president of Kent State University. He took the stage with a recent college grad turned entrepreneur Michael Matousek, CEO/founder of Flashnotes -  the "Airbnb of education."

Flashnotes offers a new-way of learning, from the smartest kids in the class via note sharing. It is also a way students can earn money and reduce their loan burden. One early Flashnotes user made more than $14,000 in the three months since it's debut in September.

Cengage is trying to innovate and move beyond its lucrative billion dollar text book business. It recently opened a development center in San Francisco's Mission Bay.

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Chris Knight consults for Cengage Learning.