By Matt Caffrey, Director of Engagement and Advocacy, College Promise Campaign
Free college was a big issue in last year’s election. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigned on sweeping plans to make public colleges and universities free. Donald Trump campaigned on making our nation’s colleges and universities more affordable. Those campaigns are over now, but the discussion and momentum around free college continues. This week saw a bold step in Nevada. On Thursday, Governor Brian Sandoval (R-NV) signed a free community college bill into law. The bill passed both houses of Nevada’s legislature with unanimous, bipartisan support.
Eight months ago, at the height of the presidential campaign, community leaders gathered at the College of Southern Nevada for a conversation on free community college that the College Promise Campaign co-sponsored with the local United Way and the region’s Chambers of Commerce. The final presidential debate was happening across town that week, full of rancor and division. But as I moderated a panel discussion with Democrats, Republicans, and nonpartisan policy experts, the tone was considerably more civil.
Everyone on stage agreed that America’s employers need more qualified workers and that students are graduating with too much debt. We discussed how community colleges are responsive to the needs of local employers, training the skilled workforce they need to expand. In rural areas, community colleges help attract new jobs, giving young people and their families a reason to set down roots and the impetus to stay in town.
Inspired by statewide free community college programs in Tennessee and Oregon, experts and participants on both sides agreed that helping more people access higher education and earn a degree or certificate is good for everyone. They concluded that making community college free would be a step in the right direction.
State Senator Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) was sitting in the audience and stepped forward at the end of the event to announce he would introduce a free community college bill. He sought co-sponsors who came forward together. This week, that bill became law.
I’m so proud that our event started a conversation about free community college in Nevada. I deeply appreciate Governor Sandoval, Senator Denis, Senator Becky Harris (R-Las Vegas), and the other co-sponsors of this legislation for their leadership. This new law, which creates the Nevada Promise Scholarship, will help thousands of Nevadans get the education they need for a good career and avoid unmanageable student debt. Students who only dreamt about going to college can now count on it. After all, it’s a ‘promise.’ The law will provide Silver State employers the skilled workers they need to expand. This is yet another step forward in the growing national consensus that high school is no longer enough and that our nation’s community colleges should be free for all hardworking students in the 21st Century.