Closing the Skills Gap: Is Free Community College Really the Answer?

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Last week at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, President Obama spoke about America’s College Promise, a program that if passed would provide a free community college education to most any student able to maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

The program would be funded by a combination of federal and state monies.

During his presentation, the President said that,

Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it — because in America, a quality education cannot be a privilege that is reserved for a few. I think it’s a right for everybody who’s willing to work for it.”

Community college the pathway to the middle class?

The President described community colleges as “ … essential pathways to the middle class” and noted their accessibility and flexibility for folks in all walks of life desiring more education but with neither the time nor the money to pursue a four-year degree.

What’s more, it’s been said that we need community colleges if we’re to meet the work challenges in the years ahead.

In a Harvard Business Review article titled Free Community College Would Help to Fix the Skills Gap, author James Bessen presents research indicating that “middle-skill workers” are growing in demand, but that U.S. schools aren’t producing graduates at the level to keep up. The research further indicates that by 2022, the number of jobs requiring advanced degrees will be significantly less than the number of people holding those degrees.

(My college senior has said for a couple of years now that far too many jobs that should be filled by teens are instead being held by overqualified college graduates. Maybe that boy knows more than I give him credit for?)

Will we really see the benefits of this?

America’s College Promise is an intriguing idea, but I’ll believe the benefits when I see it.

It’s not that I don’t think college costs are out of control, and Americans could use some help. I do.

And it’s not that I don’t believe in the power of education to change lives. I definitely do.

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But we Americans (and that includes employers) have been indoctrinated for a loooooong time now about the importance of a four-year education as a baseline for most white-collar positions. And that’s why I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the types of jobs that would be best described as “middle skill” work.

It reminds me of all the talk about how health care is a booming field, but when you look at the jobs being created (nursing assistants, home health aides, and community health care workers) you realize the pay is between $9 and $15 an hour.

Could you live on that? I surely couldn’t. So much for the boom.

Will this help the job market?

I also wonder whether most participants in the President’s program wouldn’t be students already college bound who would then parlay their community college education into a four-year degree.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and an educated society is a good thing. Still, that strategy won’t exactly change the cultural perception (or a hiring manager’s bias) that more schooling is always better.

What do you think? Will free community college cure what ails the job market?

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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7 Comments on “Closing the Skills Gap: Is Free Community College Really the Answer?

    1. Hi Danna… I thought about that too, but good grades don’t always translate into a good work ethic or good performance. I hear you, though.

  1. First, it is not “free” as the taxpayers would be footing the bill. Second here in California many can go to community college “free” via the various forms of financial aid offered. Third, do we really appreciate what is given to us or what we truly have to work for? Fourth, the costs of community college could be greatly reduced by finding ways to lower the cost of textbooks.
    I am not sure making our community college system “free” (much like our k-12 system) is the way to improve the quality of education.

    1. Hi RT. Thanks for your comments.

      I wonder though … plenty of kids (God bless them) receive a college education paid for by their parents. Would you say they don’t appreciate it? Also, I worked for a textbook publisher for years, and there’s a nice profit margin, but the cost of education hasn’t increased like crazy (http://crystalspraggins.blogspot.com/2013/03/they-dont-call-it-higher-education-for.html) because of textbooks. No way.

      As for your last statement — I’m no fan of the public schools either, but community colleges do serve a useful purpose. On the plus side, perhaps a program like this would lend more legitimacy to a community college education?

      And finally, what of the President’s statement that education shouldn’t be a privilege? Do you agree? If not, how can we maintain an educated workforce? Just asking.

      1. First thanks for the reply.

        “I wonder though … plenty of kids (God bless them) receive a college education paid for by their parents. Would you say they don’t appreciate it?” I just believe that having a tangible investment in your education be it a financial one or the investment of time and effort such as work study tends to bring up the personal appreciation level. If this would do that, great!

        “Also, I worked for a textbook publisher for years, and there’s a nice profit margin, but the cost of education hasn’t increased like crazy because of textbooks. ” Here in California the cost of textbooks is a major factor for those wanting to attend a community college. I include those costs as part of the total educational costs. And yes, the cost of these books is higher year after year.

        “As for your last statement — I’m no fan of the public schools either, but community colleges do serve a useful purpose.” I am pro-community colleges.

        They are a great way for many (including those with a low income) to move to financial stability.

        “What of the President’s statement that education shouldn’t be a privilege? Do you agree? I”

        Education should be seen as a privilege, but it should not be viewed as something that is only for the privileged. I have no problem making education more accessible. I am hopeful that we can find ways to make it more meaningful and useful to those who seek it.

    2. I agree, RT. We hire a lot of high school graduates that are practically illiterate. To me, K-12 non-learning is a complex problem with lots of contributing factors – no parent involvement, lowered standards, etc. “Free” Community College would just compound the problem.

  2. I think a lot of middle skills jobs could be covered by certification courses in technical programs, which are often part of community colleges. Access for students who want to be in programs that serve communities and the nation should always be a priority. However there needs to be clear guidance on how the colleges would be able to fund these programs without tutition. State funding for all higher education continues to be cut. States want to have balanced budgets and maintain essential services. Where is the money?

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