Why we need ‘free’ community colleges
In his recent State of the Union address, the president reconfirmed his plans for free community colleges, and outlined why his plan is necessary for a productive, competitive US economy.
Policy-makers have known for a long time that investment in state and community colleges is among the most cost-effective initiatives for local economies. Investment in community colleges gives people stable employment, gives communities a skills base and gives local business dividends.
In large part, these overwhelmingly positive outcomes are possible because community colleges are uniquely positioned to work collaboratively, bridging the gap between policy-makers and the business sector, to ensure that the college curriculum is designed to create skilled employees that are ready to enter the local job market.
Right now, more than 9 million Americans are unemployed. This is despite the fact that 4.8 million jobs remain unfilled due to a lack of applicants with the necessary skills.
This ever widening skills gap is stunting the economic growth of the US – as long as we have people without jobs and jobs without people, the American economy will remain stymied.
Greater access to community colleges will mean more people with the skills and credentials to move into middle-class incomes, effectively closing the skills gap and creating an overall economic boon.
The success of the president’s plan will depend upon meaningful partnerships between teaching staff, policy-makers and industry. These three sectors need to come together to lift the stigma that hovers over community colleges so that the sector can receive the value and the prestige that it rightly deserves.
Community colleges are often the best places to develop the technical and practical skills that are in the highest demand by today’s employers, giving community college graduates a leg-up in the job market over their baccalaureate counterparts.
Contrary to popular belief, a community college degree offers graduates the opportunity to command wages and salaries equal to – and sometimes better than – those of college graduates. Indeed one-third of two-year college grads with occupational majors out-earn their four-year college peers.
Given this disparity in earning potential, it is little wonder that cracks are appearing in the ‘college or bust’ mentality that has dominated US thinking for decades. The lack of tangible benefits upon graduation, combined with the cost of a four-year degree is forcing people to rethink some of their beliefs when it comes to education in the US.
Many young people are asking the obvious question, ‘Is it really worth it?’, and deciding that traditional four-year college programmes are a poor investment. With national student loan debt reaching its highest ever levels, at US$1.2 trillion, the average student graduates with a debt of US$30,000. The average tuition costs at a public institution for in-state residents are US$9,139, an increase of 2.9% since last year.
For years, the four-year college degree has increased exponentially in price, while decreasing in value. In fact, since 1974, tuition has risen by 3% or more every year.
As any student of Economics 101 will tell you, if you expand supply, you risk diluting quality; with increasing enrolments and tuition fees, standards have declined, and prestige and earning power along with it.
Although this may have been good for college balance sheets in the short-term, its long-term impact is now clear. We have been oversupplying the marketplace with degree-qualified graduates who are underwhelming our corporate human resources departments. In a fragile part of the economic cycle few people want or need generalists, and if everyone else has the same qualification, how does an individual stand out and signal their value?
Thinking outside the box
Given the current oversupply of college graduates, and the compounding problem of tepid job growth, there’s no better time than the present to start thinking outside the box.
Community colleges work because the model is based on ongoing value creation – not just for the institution, as in the case of many private colleges, but for the student, local businesses and the economy at large. Successful vocational education models throughout the world are all based on collaboration between educators, employers and industry groups, whose interests are aligned.
If enacted, the president’s plan for additional community college funding could increase access to this collaborative style of vocational education – and ultimately provide 9 million people a pathway to rewarding careers. As long as we have a skills gap – as long as we have people without jobs and jobs without people – the US economy cannot reach its full potential.
Free community colleges are a bold first step to economic prosperity.
Nicholas Wyman is CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation, which develops mentoring programmes for corporations and places people in apprenticeship and training programmes globally. He is also author of Job U: How to Find Wealth and Success by Developing the Skills that Companies Actually Need.
Community colleges, compared to "bigger universities", don't waste their money in building sports stadiums and other "luxury amenities" that most students don't care for.
"Right now, more than 9 million Americans are unemployed. This is despite the fact that 4.8 million jobs remain unfilled due to a lack of applicants with the necessary skills." What is shocking is that, again, these 9 million unemployed could, with freer access to community college, retrain in a short timeframe and enter those "unfilled" positions.
"Community colleges are often the best places to develop the technical and practical skills that are in the highest demand by today’s employers." With a few exceptions, such as law and medicine, and based on my personal experience, potential employers no longer care where you get your degree, skills and/or knowledge.
Nick Kocovski on the University World News Facebook page