National Education Priorities Could Hold Promise for Major Local Impact

A few weeks ago President Barack Obama unveiled an ambitious proposal to make two years of community college free and universal.  It’s referred to as “America’s College Promise” that, as of today, holds only sketchy details other than the fact that the Federal Government would provide about three-quarters of the funding and the expectation that participating states would cover the cost of the remaining one-quarter.  Starting just with the required state match, it appears there would be many strings attached to this program—for states, for educational institutions, and for students.

It is outstanding, however, that our top elected officials at both the state and national level truly understand the opportunities and promise that community and technical colleges hold, both for people and for our growing and changing economy.  But given the political dynamics of Washington, I think this proposal (although an incredible opportunity for this country) is a long shot, and it’s frankly even a longer shot that Wisconsin would voluntarily participate in a match program given our own politics and financial condition.

Books & diplomaWith that being said, however, the basis for this proposal is fundamentally very sound.  Here’s why.  We know that in today’s economy, and likely an economic reality for many years to come, some post-secondary education with requisite skills is a baseline requirement for employability in a position that contributes to a family-sustaining income.  So, supporting up to two years of post-secondary education does make some sense—it is quickly becoming the new universal baseline educational requirement.  It’s also possible that such funding would be directed specifically to high-demand occupational programs.  For some time, I’ve thought that we need to find some way to incent individuals toward choices of education and training for the hard-to-fill positions in our economy, needs that will likely change somewhat over time.  Perhaps this is just that incentive.

Finally, community and technical colleges enroll the highest percentage of low-income students in all of traditional American higher education.  One of the greatest barriers to getting a degree for many of our students (and many individuals we are not serving as students) is the cost, even though we represent the most affordable higher education option.  Pell grants for low-income students would go much further to support the other costs of attending–books, equipment, housing and transportation—if this funding were available for tuition.  At FVTC, our major challenge is pretty simple—we need to produce more graduates with the technical skills needed by our region’s workforce.  But the answer is not simple and any assistance we can get in supporting that effort would be most welcomed.

You may also be interested in a bit about the finances of the proposed “America’s College Promise.”  It is unofficially estimated to cost about $6 billion per year (likely the Federal portion) if all states participated.  So, without question, a considerable cost.  It’s also projected, however, that this expenditure would represent barely 8% of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget, which in turn is less than 3% of all Federal Government spending.  Now that’s something to wrap your mind around!

I always have said that budgets are all about priorities.  Should tuition support for community and technical college students, particularly in programs that prepare people for high-demand occupations, be a priority for our country?  Do you agree that some post-secondary education or training has become the baseline requirement for most good employment opportunities?  What do you think?  If you were a member of Congress, how would you vote on this budget item?

Read recent success stories about high-demand programs:
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