by Stan Bunger

(CBS SF COMMENTARY) —  President Barack Obama is proposing that every American be guaranteed two more years of free public education: community college.

I’m going to sidestep the question of how we pay for this (and I realize that’s a pretty big step) to focus on what’s at the core of this: a recognition that community colleges are more than just “high schools with ashtrays”, as they’ve often been called. Way more.

Full disclosure: I’m a community college graduate (West Valley College in Saratoga, Class of ’75). I’m a big believer in the community college mission and I believe we need them now more than ever, for reasons that may not be readily apparent.

Let’s set the wayback machine for 1973. Yours truly is graduating from Leigh High School in San Jose, the eldest of 5 kids. Not only are Mom and Dad looking at some pretty serious college costs in the years ahead, but your humble correspondent (like many a teenager) really doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.

These days, a kid like me would probably be pushed into applying to the “right” four-year college. The kid and/or his parents would take on considerable debt in pursuit of a degree that the statistics say he’d be unlikely to achieve in four years. And in fact, the school he attends will often be a “high school with booze and drugs.”

Because the stakes are so high, our modern version of me would be pushed into choosing a major from Day One, as if he could predict which of the manifold offerings in the college curriculum would be the spark to light his lamp.

Back to 1973: economics and a lack of clarity on what to study sent me to West Valley rather than a four-year school. It was a fascinating time to be on a community college campus. The places were full of Vietnam War veterans as well as moms and grandmothers going to school under something called the Women’s Reentry Program. Young know-it-alls like me were forced to confront actual grownups in our classes.

I will always be grateful. We had some great faculty at West Valley and the environment allowed me to find my passion before transferring to complete my undergraduate education.

Sure, times have changed. But even if you accept the argument that college is more important than ever, I’ll argue that for more young people than we’re willing to admit, community college would be the right place to start the journey to higher learning.

Anyone who’s honest will admit there’s a stigma attached to choosing the community college path. We need to erase that and tell our young that it’s a viable path, an honest way to the goal of higher learning. Plus, it’s way cheaper than the four-year alternative.

Even if President Obama’s proposal gets tripped up in its details, it can help us start a conversation about our community colleges, and that’s a good thing.