A century ago, Americans began to coalesce around the idea that education should be compulsory up to age 16. We haven’t budged a day since then.
Far more people attend college these days, of course, but they have to pay their own way or cobble together a mix of scholarships, grants, loans and government aid to cover the bill. It works for people who make it through. But a growing portion of young people fall through the sizeable gap between a devalued high-school diploma and a very valuable college degree.
Finding productive “middle-skill” jobs for these educational tweens has become a national priority, and President Obama now says he has a solution. Obama wants the government to cover two years’ worth of community college for students who keep their grades up and learn practical skills likely to lead to a decent job and career. The White House says the plan would cost about $6 billion per year, roughly what we spent on disaster aid or the National Science Foundation in 2014. "Two years of college education will become as free and universal as high school is today," Obama said during a recent speech in Knoxville.
The buzzkill politics of Washington will promptly turn this into an argument over whether it’s the government’s job to shepherd workers into a job, but Obama is actually onto something. Economists and business leaders have been batting around all sorts of ideas about how to help workers and businesses at the same time, while boosting growth that just about everybody agrees is subpar. Obama hasn’t fleshed out his community-college idea yet, but in principle it would establish government support for exactly the kind of occupational training that’s lacking in many parts of the country.
Recent research by Harvard Business School, consulting firm Accenture and research outfit Burning Glass found that many companies need more middle-skill workers —those with less than a college degree but some training or education beyond high school—than they’re able to find. “They can’t find the experience or the training in middle-skill workers,” says David Smith of Accenture. “Many people wait for the employer to offer some training, but our data show it’s not going to happen as easily as most people think.”
That’s where community colleges come in. These local schools tend to teach more practical, hands-on skills—similar to trade schools—than colleges, which still tilt toward academic education that may or may not lead directly to a job. College is supposed to breed deep learning, which is great when it actually happens. But far too many students get a poor return on their investment or, worse, drop out and end up stuck with loads of student debt but no degree.
There are about 2.8 million full-time students at community colleges, and another 4 million part-timers. But community college enrollment has dipped during the last few years, suggesting such schools may be an underutilized resource. Obama's push could change that, if only by drawing more attention to cheaper alternatives to four-year universities.
A promising middle ground solution
A two-year associate’s degree or a couple semesters’ worth of occupational training can be a great solution for young people who are eager to get started on a career but are short on cash for college (or simply lack the interest). Manufacturing jobs used to provide a middle-class lifestyle for millions of people who had little education beyond high school—but often rose through the ranks at a factory or industrial operation. But manufacturing employment has shrunk by 30% over the last two decades, and good-paying jobs in the field now tend to require technical know-how and the ability to operate computerized machines.
“Middle-skills jobs today are tougher,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. “You need more education than you used to.”
Good community colleges can help people get the training needed for jobs in healthcare, computer programming, warehousing, office work and other fields where pay is decent and there are plenty of career opportunities for workers willing to keep adding to their skill set. The lower cost of community colleges—typically a couple thousand dollars per semester, with aid available—lets students gain practical skills without racking up tons of debt. And the shorter duration raises the odds of finishing a program before the money runs out.
Congressional Republicans seem sure to argue that the over-indebted federal government shouldn’t spend more money it doesn’t have on unproven job-creation programs better handled by somebody else. If the usual dynamics apply, there will be a lot of arguing over Obama’s latest initiative, and nothing will happen.
But Obama should continue to press the idea from the bully pulpit, because more effective community-college education could be an economic boon no matter who pays for it. Some companies are already partnering with local schools to ramp up training in fields where they need workers. More businesses could join. Cities and states might do more to promote community colleges as a way to stimulate regional economies. And students themselves might be more likely to enroll—even on their own dime—if they could get better guidance about which fields are hot and which skills are most in demand. Every now and then, an idea borne in Washington is worth replicating.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.