In his sixth State of the Union address, President Obama laid out the foundations of “a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.”
More specifically, “America’s College Promise” is a proposal to fully subsidize community college tuition for for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and attend at least half time. About 9 million students would benefit from the program annually, which would cost federal and state governments together about $60 billion over 10 years.
The proposal is a long shot in today’s gridlocked congress, but it’s a welcome attempt to address two long-lamented trends in higher education: ballooning cost and diminishing job readiness. Critics of the plan are alighting on its price tag and its graduation non-requirement, but there’s good reason to believe that such a proposal would not only justify the expense, but also achieve the expanded access to job training that it seeks. In order to understand why, however, we need to understand how community colleges work in 2015.
Community college is about jobs training
Last week, Tom Hanks wrote a column for The New York Times that supported the president’s proposal by way of recounting his own positive experiences at California’s Chabot Community College in the 1970s. “For thousands of commuting students, Chabot was our Columbia, Annapolis, even our Sorbonne,” Hanks said, reminiscing on humanities classes and theater productions.
This is a misleading portrait of community college. Nowadays, many act as portals for students to find training suites that deliver workforce preparedness and skills development. Some community colleges still offer the high academia that Hanks remembers — and which most critics of the president’s plan imagine when thinking of government-subsidized higher-ed — but largely, a shift is underway to build community college around marketized training solutions like Grovo. Far from simply offering cut-rate Shakespeare analysis, community colleges today vet and repackage outsourced skills training to students seeking to enhance their job readiness. The institutions profit from providing paying students with the most effective learning possible.
There is a lot of value to learners in this system, especially if their goal is job training. Suppose a local industry requires skills for which multiple companies offer courses. Rather than having to wade through all of them, students can go confidently to their community college, knowing that the institution has anticipated the need and found the best product on the market for those skills. The end result is a system in which everyday people, whether they’re looking to improve their employment prospects or simply develop their professional skills, pay a community college for access to skills training courses that the institution has validated. This is likely the type of model that Obama’s plan would defray — not a Dead Poet’s Society on the dole.
A relatively small cost
Many have balked at the proposal’s price tag, which would add $60 billion to a deficit that is still struggling to return to pre-recession levels. The concern is valid, but perhaps better reserved for the comparably stunning cost of forgoing broad-based skills training.
A lack of digital skills siphons $1.3 trillion from the American economy each year. Hirers have long complained that the skills gap is the reason why positions remained unfilled while unemployment, until recently, surged. 21% of productivity is lost to languishing digital skills, which evolve now on a timeline not of weeks and months, but of days.
A community college subsidy would tackle the skills gap head on. The terms of the program could stipulate a minimum of applicability for any skills the state pays for; it could incentivize skills that aid local economies.
At the very least, it would establish a positive narrative of continuing education, if not reap over a trillion dollars in ROI to the national economy. $60 billion is a lot of money for taxpayers to swallow, but it’s not more than the cost of ad hoc skills training.
Stay tuned for Part 2, being published 1/28/15!