A century ago, only about a fifth of 15- to 18-year-olds in the United States attended high school, and less than a tenth of 18-year-olds graduated. Simply put, getting a high school diploma wasn't viewed as necessary back then for most people to get a job.
But enrollment began to grow shortly after that period as more high schools were built and governments placed more emphasis on encouraging children to attend school and get their diplomas. Free public education increasingly was viewed as a ticket to better jobs and through the decades that followed. By 1940, nearly three-quarters of America's teens were enrolled in high schools.
Fast forward to today, however, and the high school diploma doesn't carry as much weight any more. In fact, having some post-secondary education is viewed as crucial for most people to make a decent income. But part of the challenge for many is paying for a continued education; even though there are public universities and colleges, they are far from free. Tuition alone at some of the least expensive universities and colleges can run into several thousand dollars a year.
With this changing landscape, more and more states are exploring the notion of providing free community college educations to its residents - including some lawmakers in West Virginia. It's an idea worth seriously pursuing.
West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, in recent weeks has stated that he's drafting a proposal allowing state residents to earn a two-year associate's degree at no cost to them. He's also looking at a system that also might allow high school students to complete some sort of certificate while still in school. To participate in the program, Carmichael told the Charleston Gazette-Mail, students would be required to take a drug test and also may be committed to staying in the state for a number of years. There likely would be an income limit to prevent families making upward of $150,000 from receiving funding.
Carmichael estimates that $10 million would pay for the whole cost of the program to supplement any grants and scholarships that students would receive.
Such a program could have a dual benefit. First, it is likely to open up a path to better job opportunities for more state residents. Employers in the state often lament that they can't find people with the necessary skills to fill their job openings, and a free community college education in in-demand fields could close that skills gap.
Secondly, economic development officials say West Virginia suffers in attracting new businesses because the state's labor force generally does not have sufficient skill and education levels to convince employers to locate in the Mountain State.
Allowing residents to gain at least two years of post-secondary education without cost should convince more of them to further their education. Carmichael's proposal is a reasonable response to the changing employment landscape that suggests free public education in today's world should go beyond a high school diploma.