Providing universal access to higher education is a step in the right direction – whether or not the tab is picked up by federal and state governments. (Theoretically, non-profits, employers, and educational institutions could also chip in to make this happen.) President Obama recently proposed America’s College Promise where the government provides two years of community college for free. According to some early estimates, this proposal has a $60 billion price-tag.
If all states participate, an estimated 9 million students could benefit. A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.[i]
Of course, there are many benefactors of this proposal: low-income families, less mature teenagers, veterans looking to validate skills, and ‘middle-skill’ professionals.
It is difficult for low-income families to put a student through college. Sure there are currently loans and grants offered for the families in need, but cutting the ‘red tape’ and telling these families everything is free is inspiring. If the proposal is accepted, more low-income students will go to community college.
Many teenagers are just not ready to enter a traditional four-year, on campus college program. They are not ready to take full accountability for their learning – attending class, doing homework, and balancing a social life. America’s College Program stipulates each student gets a mentor and must maintain a C+ average to stay in the program. A majority of community college students stay at home.
A proponent of America’s College Promise says it would benefit our veterans. They will be able to build upon their ‘technical skill and management expertise’ from serving and earn a degree – making them better job candidates. [ii]
Sixty percent of graduating high school students attend a community college. It’s expected that as many as 25 million of all new job openings in the next decade will be for middle-skills jobs. In a 2014 survey, Accenture found that 69 percent of about 800 human resources executives said that middle-skill talent shortages “regularly affect their performance.”[iii]Clearly, this program would affect a large segment of the American population. It sets a new bar for education achievement of Americans.
Some other thoughts on the proposal:
- Akin to another public initiative of adding one to two more years to high school. Both programs are designed to get students college credits and prepare for the final two years of a bachelor’s degree. It is not only about saving on tuition, but also giving students more time to mature for a higher order learning experience.
- In a circuitous way, we are already paying for a large chunk of unpaid student loans. The federal government takes the burden of reparations for students who default on their loans, so our tax dollars are being used already.
- Many community colleges face challenges to keep their doors open. One example is San Francisco Community College that almost collapsed without outside stimulus. A federal funding plan guarantees a revenue source, which makes it easier for community colleges to build a healthy foundation.
- Skills gap due to a lack in technical skills. The program should increase the number of skilled workers. Community colleges offer accelerated programs to build these much-needed skills – engineering, programming, etc.
- Puts pressure on the traditional four-year programs to reduce their tuition. Students have the option to take two years free at a community college, then transfer their credits and finish the last two years to earn a bachelor’s degree.
- Provides resources to improve graduation rates by assigning a mentor. Community college dropout rates now hover somewhere between 66 percent and 80 percent.[iv]
Thinking in term of a Skills-Based Approach, there are alternative ways to build and validate the same technical skills; some of them include online training, certifications, apprenticeships, internships, coding camps, etc. Perhaps the program should cover two years of community college and other equivalent ways to build necessary technical skills. (Put a cap on the total expense and limit all programs to two years.) The president has also proposed the American Technical Training Fund, which is meant to expand beyond community colleges to other training institutions.
America’s College Promise guarantees everyone has access to higher education and training, so it increases the chances Americans find gainful employment and enjoy fulfilling lives. Moreover, it gives lower-income families a chance. For this reason, the essence of the program, I hope universal access to higher education becomes a reality – regardless if the president’s proposal gets approved (which is unlikely).