Today, they're presidents of four-year colleges in the Philadelphia region. But at one time their work was far different: One toiled in the steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio. Another drove rental cars back and forth from the Toledo airport to Detroit, bartended at a bowling alley, and baled hay in the summer on local farms. Another stocked gift shop shelves at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., before being promoted to manager and asked to uncover who was stealing money from the operation.

Those early jobs helped them pay for college, and as the cost of a college education gets increased scrutiny — President Obama recently announced a plan to make community college free — The Inquirer asked a sampling of presidents at local four-year colleges how they paid for their undergraduate education and what they think of Obama's community college plan.

Many thought Obama's plan had merit but were concerned about its cost — an estimated $60 billion over 10 years. They also had ideas that they thought might work better, such as increasing funding for federal Pell grants that already are targeted toward students from low-income families. One president outlined a program at his university in Delaware as a better alternative.

Here's a look at what they had to say:

Amy Gutmann, University of Pennsylvania

As a young woman, my mother worked tirelessly to help her family survive the Great Depression, and my father helped his family escape Nazi Germany. Neither had the chance to get a college education. So I didn't know much about the possibilities that college presented. One day, our family doctor told me I should think big and apply to a great college where I could get financial aid. That advice motivated me to apply to Radcliffe College at Harvard, where I attended on a full, need-based scholarship. My experience at college forever changed the trajectory of my life.

Now, my greatest passion as Penn's president is getting the word out to students who may not know about Penn and other schools committed to making their college education affordable. Penn's all-grant financial aid policy ensures that they and their families can afford it. One in nine Penn freshmen are first-generation college students and the average grant package for this year's first-year student receiving financial aid is about $45,000/year.

On Obama's plan

Maximizing access to higher education to all hardworking students will benefit this country for generations to come. Education is the engine of opportunity, and the more we make it affordable and accessible to all students who want to work to better themselves and their families, the better off our society will be. Our system of higher education has succeeded, and has been admired around the world, because of the tremendous diversity we have built into our educational landscape. I commend President Obama for recognizing this and for starting a constructive dialogue around this issue of paramount importance.

James T. Harris III, Widener University

I am a first-generation college graduate. Neither of my parents went to college, nor did anyone before them (grandparents, great grandparents, etc.).

During my undergraduate years, I worked full time during the summer and into the fall and worked part time during the school year (20 hours a week). During holiday breaks I worked full time to save more money.

My jobs included being a custodian, working in a crankshaft factory, and then a foundry. My part-time jobs included driving rental cars back and forth from the Toledo airport to Detroit, and I was a bartender at a bowling alley and baling hay in the summer on local farms.

It was worth working all those jobs to put myself through college. I have the opportunity to do something I love that impacts the lives of young people everyday. So, ROI (return on investment) was well worth it.

(Harris got his bachelor's degree from the University of Toledo.)

On Obama's plan

My personal opinion is that his plan is right in line with his vision for America that he outlined a few years ago, which is to have more Americans with a college education by 2020 to make the U.S. more competitive. I also believe that what he is really saying is that all Americans should not only have a K-12 education, but rather a K-14 is a great idea.

My issues with his proposal are twofold: First, I think there should be a need-based component for the grants for community college. Second, I would have liked to hear him talk more about the importance of a liberal education in the 21st century and how we need more Americans who understand other cultures and ideally speak another language other than English. A bolder idea would have been to provide resources to any college or university that can provide language development or create centers for cultural exchanges and intercultural dialogues. For example, a goal to have more Americans study abroad would have been a great idea. Finally, more of a commitment to STEM fields would have been great to hear.

Daniel H. Weiss, Haverford College

I worked throughout college and was fortunate to have the support of my family. I worked about 20-30 hours a week during each semester from sophomore year until I graduated and full time every summer at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. I went to GW (George Washington University).

Incidentally, NPR's This American Life did a story on my work experience at the Kennedy Center (episode 431). The focus was on what I learned about pervasive dishonesty, a lesson that was at least as valuable as my coursework.

On Obama's plan

I believe that the community college initiative is a very constructive and potentially important piece of legislation to help support college access for more Americans. One issue, of course, is the real cost of a college education and this would help those most in need of financial support. Such funding would help break the vicious cycle of underemployment and limited prospects by those who want a college degree but can't secure the resources and time to get one. The other benefit would be in enhancing the visibility of access for all who seek it. Removing the real and perceived barriers of cost should help inspire more people to continue their educations.

John A. Fry, Drexel University

My parents and my grandmother helped me pay for my undergraduate education at Lafayette. The money I made working summers for the telephone company went to tuition, and I also worked as a resident adviser my sophomore and junior years to pay for room and board.

On Obama's plan

The president's plan has only been outlined in very broad strokes, and it's hard to judge its specific merits at this point. But we work hard every day at Drexel to help more people go to college, so I was encouraged that he made a bold statement about access. I think it's appropriate for the president to lead on this issue, because the benefits of increasing individual access to education accrue to our society as a whole. And I agree that America's community colleges are a great vehicle for expanding access — Drexel welcomes hundreds of outstanding community college transfers each year.

Donald Taylor, Cabrini College

I was the first generation —- first member member — of my family to go to college. I'm from a small, low-income, northwest town in Tennessee. When I attended the University of Memphis, I paid for my undergraduate education with need-based aid, including academic scholarships, federal work study, grants, and local community-based scholarships funded by members of my hometown. I also held part-time jobs while completing my undergraduate degree.

On Obama's plan

I believe the approach is a new way to frame President Obama's recommendation from his first term. It recaptures the nation's college-degree-attainment levels as a foundation to compete globally in the new knowledge economy.

In general, I'm in favor of the proposal, provided the funding won't come from budget cuts in need-based financial-aid programs, such as Pell grants. If the proposal were to be implemented, I think it would have a better chance of being successful if it were done at the state level rather than by the federal government, but it's difficult to evaluate at this point. Data from similar initiatives in Tennessee and Chicago, which served as the framework for the President's proposal, need to be thoroughly reviewed.

Stephen Spinelli Jr., Philadelphia University

I attended Western Maryland College, now McDaniel College, as an undergraduate. I played football, but it was a DIII school, so my discounted costs were a combination of need, scholarship and loans. I paid about half the listed cost through summer jobs, part-time employment, and personal loans. My parents were not able to help with my college expenses. It took six to eight years to pay off the loans, but I continue to donate each year to McDaniel. When all is said and done, I estimate that I will have repaid the scholarship money about 50 times.

On Obama’s plan

The President's proposal is another, significant, voice raising an alarm about the cost of higher education. I applaud him for that. The value that higher education creates for graduates is critical to advance society. It's important for students to determine the best way they can pursue this goal. For some, community college offers a moderate-cost, viable option, and Philadelphia University has a number of articulation agreements with two-year colleges to help students transition to a four-year bachelor's program.

For other students, a four-year bachelor's degree program creates the best long-term value for them and for society. Ninety-four percent of recent Phila U graduates had a job in the field of their passion or were enrolled in graduate school. This year, more than 96 percent of Phila U undergraduates receive financial aid to help them reach their academic and career goals. I would urge students, parents and educators to examine the value propositions offered by each institution.

I also ask the President to examine the escalation of regulatory costs imposed on colleges and universities, which contribute to the escalation of higher education costs.

Cecelia Fitzgibbon, Moore College of Art & Design

I went to the University of Massachusetts. My parents gave me $400 for my first semester and the rest was up to me for the remaining 3.5 years. I financed my education by working and saving in the summers, doing a work study job during the year, and taking out a small amount of student loans (the number that I recall is around $3,000, which in those days was a lot of money) in addition to the Pell grant I received. It took me five years to pay the money back and I have never regretted it once. (She was the first in her family to attend college full-time).

Fitzgibbon offered no comment on Obama's community college plan.

Frank G. Pogue, Cheyney University

I entered a local public community college in Mobile (Alabama State University, College at the time) the summer I finished high school. This was a branch of Alabama State in Mobile. Like K-12, the college was very segregated. I was a work-study student, typing in the Office of the Dean for the one-and-a-half years I attended. I transferred to the senior campus, Alabama State College in Montgomery. I was a work-study student in the Office of the President. When I graduated, I had a $2,700 federal student loan.

On Obama’s plan

I support President Obama's desire to create opportunities for students to have access to college and assist them with their education, particularly at no cost, given the economy and increasing cost of higher education. It is our responsibility, at the senior college level, to develop cooperative relationships with community colleges that would ensure a smooth transition to our campuses.

Rosalie Mirenda, Neumann University

(Responses provided by spokesman Steve Bell:) Our president chuckled at your first question, admitting, "I'm from another era." Rosalie Mirenda lived in South Philly and went to Villanova in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Her family saved and paid for everything, semester by semester, for her entire four years. No grants, no loans, no debt. Her story is obviously not what current students face.

On Obama's plan

Mirenda tells me that she is not a proponent of free community college for all. She believes that the mechanisms are already in place to support those who want a college degree and who have financial need. She suggests increasing support for those programs (like Pell grants) that exist.

Ali Houshmand, Rowan University

(Responses provided by spokesman Joe Cardona:) University of Essex (England) bachelor's and master's degrees. Tuition was relatively low so he was able to pay with a small loan from his brother and with his pay from working at KFC.

On Obama's plan

Houshmand is in full support of the 'free community college' concept but would like to hear more about funding models.

Patrick T. Harker, University of Delaware

(First response from spokeswoman Andrea Boyle Tippett:) Dr. Harker attended University of Pennsylvania and earned a bachelor's of science in civil and urban engineering in May 1981. He paid for his education through a combination of sources. He received need-based financial aid from Penn (his father died when he was 9 years old and his mother worked as a clerk in the tax office of Gloucester City). He also received work-study (worked in the football office and Athletic Department and worked as civil engineering lab assistant and research assistant). His family saved the money received in Social Security death benefits after his father died. He worked summer jobs on a farm in Deptford, and for an engineering consulting firm (also worked there part-time while in school). He took out loans totaling $3,000 to cover the remainder. He doesn't recall how long it took to pay that off.

On Obama's plan

The proposal is ambitious and worthwhile. It recognizes that education is a boon to our entire economy and way of life, as well as an individual benefit.

But the proposal isn't enough.

Among students who enroll in community college, only about 60 percent come back for their second year and only about 30 percent earn an associate's degree within three years. Without a degree, those students — or the taxpayers — are left with all of the debt and none of the benefits of education.

For many students, navigating their way through a maze of courses and programs is daunting or even impossible. They need more than free tuition.

A decade ago, UD created the associate in arts program for students who need extra academic or financial support to succeed in college. It's UD courses taught by UD faculty in small classes in Delaware Technical Community College's buildings throughout the state. Students receive an AA in university studies by earning 60 credits in the core courses we require of all undergraduates then transition to UD's main campus to earn their bachelor's degree.

Note that word "transition." AA students don't transfer to UD; they're already ID-carrying UD students who can use the library, join student organizations, catch a football game, study abroad and do essentially everything a traditional student can do.

It's a community college embedded within UD. It's a full bachelor's degree sequence; it just starts at a different location.

It works. More than 80 percent of our new AA students return for their second year, and more than 72 percent earn their associate degrees within three years. Nearly all transition to the main campus to earn their bachelor's degrees.

We give students a lot of support and guidance. We practice "intrusive" advising, closely monitoring AA students' grades, attendance and participation to head off potential problems. Their First Year Experience seminar is tailored to their needs: study skills, time management, tutoring and support services. In their sophomore year, students are introduced to main-campus faculty and advisors to chart their transition. A few weeks before they arrive on the main campus, we bring them together for Transitions Day, when staff and former AA students offer advice on making that leap.

From the moment students are admitted, it's a comprehensive program dedicated to get them their bachelor's degree.

AA students tell us they enjoy the smaller classes and individual attention from professors, and they appreciate having the time to improve their academic skills. The program is supportive enough to ensure success, they say, but rigorous enough that it doesn't feel like 13th grade of high school.

It's affordable, too. AA tuition is about a third what it is for main-campus students; the University absorbs the rest of the cost.

For traditional students coming from Delaware high schools, tuition is covered by the state's scholarship program, Student Excellence Equals Degree, or SEED. Begun in 2005, SEED is similar to scholarship programs in many other states and to President Obama's latest proposal.

In the global knowledge economy, our nation's prosperity depends on providing a high-quality education to everyone. Tuition-free community college may be the best way to get more students to the starting line.

But we must also chart a smooth, seamless educational path for students because our real job is getting them across the finish line.

Robert G. Duffett, Eastern University

(First answer provided by Denise McMillan, spokeswoman:) Our president attended Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was fortunate enough to have his parents pay for the bulk of his undergraduate education, but he did contribute to paying for his education by working part time in the steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio.

On Obama's plan

(Duffett submitted the following op ed piece:) In his State of the Union Address, President Obama laid out a new higher-education initiative - free community college education for two years for all Americans. Like public K-12 education, the cost to the student will be zero!

Many details have yet to be worked out. Initial reports suggest the federal government would pay 75 percent of the cost, with the states covering the remaining 25 perent. The total dollar amount could be as high as $60 billion over 10 years.

The goals are simple and compelling:

1. Almost 40 percent of America's college students attend community colleges.

2. Surprising to some, America is falling behind peer countries in both two-year and four-year college-degree attainment.

3. Most jobs of the future will require post-secondary education.

4. The cost of higher education hinders many from beginning or completing a college degree.

5. Possession of a college degree substantially increases one's lifetime earnings.

Some think this initiative will transform society much like Pell grants have done for individuals from economically challenged families, or as the G.I. Bill did for the "greatest generation" returning from World War II.

I applaud President Obama for his vision and this initiative. However, what if there currently exists a better way; one that is tried, true and familiar to all in American higher education and has a successful history of clearly identifying those students with the greatest financial need? The federal government already has such a program in place, namely the Pell grant program. Could it be that a substantial increase to the present program might better achieve the president's vision?

Pell grants are financial aid grants funded by the federal government and given to qualified students to attend the college of their choice, whether it be a private college, public university, or community college. "Qualified students" is an important term. Applicants are "means tested" in that all recipients must apply through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and meet certain financial criteria in order to qualify. This program was named after long-serving Rhode Island U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, who was a benefactor of the G.I. Bill. He was impressed by what the G.I. Bill did for himself, other individuals, and American society. He sought to establish a grant program similar to the G.I. Bill, yet one that targeted students from lower income families who possessed the academic talent to attend college but lacked the financial means to pay for it. Since the early 1970s, millions attended college partially paid for by Pell grants. Today, students with Pell grants attend virtually every accredited college, university and community college in America. Last year, according to data sets from the U.S. Department of Education, over 9 million college students received a Pell grant averaging about $3,700 per student.

Consider this possibility. If 10 percent, or $6 billion, from the President's new initiative (one year's outlay of $60 billion proposed decade cost) was directed to the federal Pell grant program and distributed equally to only first-year students (approximately 1.4 million), the average award would increase to approximately $8,000, representing over twice what was awarded last year per student (using last year's average award as base and including new money). This increase would make a substantial difference in year-to-year persistence and, thus, degree attainment. Additionally, students would have a wider choice of higher education options. All sectors, not just one sector of American higher education, could rally toward the President's higher-education objectives.

The lesson of history from the G.I. Bill of the 1940s and the federal Pell grant program today is this: When the federal government determines the criteria and permits the student to choose which college, major and occupation is best for them, American society and the individual will equally flourish.

Neil D. Theobald, Temple University

I was incredibly fortunate to receive a full scholarship (academic, not athletic!) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Thus, I graduated debt free.

On Obama's plan

I welcome President Obama's focus on access to affordable higher education. This complements Temple's core mission of providing talented and motivated students from all backgrounds with access to affordable, high-quality college degrees.