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

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Jan 15, 2015

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.

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?

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