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Can Free Community College Close the Skills Gap?

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced that he was going to propose a plan to Congress which would make “the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it.”  He stated the importance of education not just for kids, but also to offer the opportunity for everybody to become better trained so that they could receive better jobs, wages, and benefits.  During his annual State of the Union Address on January 20, he explained why he believes this plan is so important.  He said,

“To make sure folks keep earning higher wages down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills.

“America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world.  But in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to do more.

“By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education.  Two in three.  And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need.  It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future.

“That’s why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college  to zero.

“Forty percent of our college students choose community college.  Some are young and starting out.  Some are older and looking for a better job.  Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market.  Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt.  Understand, you’ve got to earn it – you’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time.

“Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible.  I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.  Let’s stay ahead of the curve.  And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.

“Thanks to Vice President Biden’s great work to update our job training system, we’re connecting community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, and nursing, and robotics.  Tonight, I’m also asking more businesses to follow the lead of companies like CVS and UPS, and offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships – opportunities that give workers the chance to earn higher-paying jobs even if they don’t have a higher education.”

An op-ed written by Nicholas Wyman for the online business news publication Quartz titled  A free community college program could get millions of Americans into skilled jobs endorsed the proposal:

“… this program has the potential to be one of the most positive and powerful steps in narrowing the ever-growing skills gap in America.  Right now, over 9.1 million Americans are unemployed with millions of others underemployed.  Yet at the same time, 4.8 million jobs remain unfilled, because there simply isn’t a big enough pool of applicants who possess the right practical, technical, and job-ready skills to do the work companies need.  Free community college could change all that.

“While not all the details are yet clear, they so far indicate that participating colleges would have to meet certain academic requirements, with preference given to degrees in high-demand fields.  And this is what gets at the heart of the promise to close America’s skills gap, ensuring that the millions of students who receive this government assistance will be trained and educated in the skills that add the most value – and will be the most valued – by 21st-century companies.”

Wyman listed six reasons why he thinks this free community college program could be essential for a better economic future for our entire country – not just for the students who will benefit directly.  He listed:

  1. Americans need the right skills to compete on the global stage
  2. Free community college will lower the levels of student loan debt crippling the US economy
  3. Most thriving economies place far more emphasis on vocational education than the US – and that’s no coincidence
  4. Vocationally-trained people earn sizable salaries
  5. Vocationally-trained people are upwardly mobile
  6. It’s time to move past the stigma associated with vocational education

Not everyone is fully on-board with the proposed initiatives.  In a blog post for the economic think tank The Hamilton Project, Harry J. Holzer had a few reservations regarding the proposal.  He wrote:

“Most of the benefits of this proposal will not go to the poor, who already pay for community college with Pell grants; instead, the benefits will go to non-poor students who otherwise do not attend or go somewhere else.  While it is laudable to help all students, including the non-poor, this proposal would be quite expensive if fully implemented, and it is not well-targeted to those who need the most help.

“Indeed, some middle-class students, who now attend 4-year colleges right away, might opt instead to go to community college for the first 2 years, where their educational outcomes may not be as strong (since there is always some slippage in the transfer process between colleges).  Furthermore, given the teaching capacity constraints that exist at so many community colleges already, a large influx of middle-class students might result in poorer students being squeezed out of the classes or supports that they need and would otherwise obtain.”

Read the full articles in the above links, and share your opinion in the comments section below.

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