In last week’s State of the Union, President Barack Obama laid out a plan to offer a community college education free of charge to every American. These schools, as Obama said back in 2010, are “treated like the stepchild of the higher education system. They’re an afterthought, if they’re thought of at all,” but now he’s hoisted them up as the “centerpiece of [his] education agenda.”

Some question whether his proposal for free tuition is the best use of limited cash, but setting politics aside, there’s no denying that the nation’s 1,130 community colleges play a vital role in higher education. Here’s why they’re essential to our success.

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