For millions of Americans, community colleges are essential pathways to the middle class because they’re local, they’re flexible. They work for people who work full-time. They work for parents who have to raise kids full-time. They work for folks who have gone as far as their skills will take them and want to earn new ones, but don’t have the capacity to just suddenly go study for four years and not work. Community colleges work for veterans transitioning back into civilian life. Whether you’re the first in your family to go to college, or coming back to school after many years away, community colleges find a place for you. And you can get a great education. 

– President Barack Obama, Jan. 9, 2015

Red Lion mom and newly minted college graduate Brandy Stabley has a story of achievement that echoes that of many working Americans for whom community college is a pathway to career success.

Stabley, 43, was this year’s student speaker at the Harrisburg Area Community College commencement. She received her associate degree in nursing after five years and 12 semesters driven by laudable determination.

Community colleges, like HACC, are important stepping stones on the path to a better career with higher earnings. A career like nursing can provide Stabley and her family with the economic security that is vital to continued success — for her and her three children.

It’s not easy to work two jobs, as Stabley did, raise three children, and attend college.

Across the nation, many of those who — for economic or personal reasons — cannot attend a four-year university find community colleges provide not only affordability but educational opportunities that rival four-year colleges.

Anyone who has transferred from a two-year to a four-year school knows that, comparatively speaking, community college courses typically match — and sometimes even best — the classroom learning at university.

Due to their affordability and proximity to students’ homes, as well as their open admissions policy, community colleges provide a doorway to higher education for first-generation college students, low-income students, working adults and those returning to school after being downsized.

According to the College Board of Research and Urban Institute, in fall 2014, 42 percent of all undergraduate students and 25 percent of all full-time undergraduate students were enrolled in community colleges.

The report also found that, according to the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), nearly half of all students who completed a degree at a four-year institution in 2013-14 had enrolled at a two-year institution at some point in the previous decade.

We applaud the president’s proposal to make community college free, and we believe it should be a legislative priority to make college more affordable and accessible to all students.

We must provide as much financial and moral support as possible to those who embark on the sometimes daunting community college path, like Brandy Stabley did.

Because when determined and successful students like her are given an opportunity to shine, they help strengthen our communities — and our nation.

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