Why Obama’s Free Community College Plan is a GREAT Idea

President Barack Obama thinks community college should be free to anyone willing to work hard at it, the same way primary and secondary schooling from elementary through high school has been free for ages. For a moment I want to set aside all the arguments as to the idea’s feasibility in terms of how to make it happen and pay for it in order to focus on why it’s a great idea for anyone involved in talent management, human resources, or organizations in general.

Back at the end of 2012, Thomas Kochan, David Finegold, and Paul Osterman published an article in the Harvard Business Review called “Who Can Fix the ‘Middle-Skills’ Gap?” At the time, we were several years out from the Great Recession, and the issue these writers were struggling with was how “many employers still struggle to fill certain types of vacancies, especially for so-called middle-skills jobs—in computer technology, nursing, high-skill manufacturing, and other fields—that require postsecondary technical education and training and, in some cases, college math courses or degrees. Currently in the U.S. about 69 million people work in middle-skills jobs, representing roughly 48% of the labor force.”

With the continued retiring of Baby Boomers, it was estimated that nearly half of all job openings might fall in this land of middle-skills. The authors lamented the fact that educational reforms for K-12 schools simply weren’t happening and probably won’t happen fast enough to make any impact on the looming shortage. I’m not sure how much postsecondary-level education could be injected into the K-12 system anyways, even in a perfect world. They went on to describe how they thought companies themselves could take the lead in training people for the skills they need.

The ideas were something of a patchwork quilt that would necessarily require a high level of cooperation between business leaders, unions, and educational institutions. That sounds like trying to herd cats to me.

Then in 2013 came a comprehensive report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD Skills Outlook 2013) that confirmed and deepened concern for the skill level of the American workforce, which could only be described as having fallen dangerously behind our peers among developed nations. We’re behind in math, numeracy, problem-solving with computers, even literacy!

A New York Times article about the report noted that, “while just under a third of the existing jobs in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas require a bachelor’s degree or more, about 43 percent of newly available jobs demand this degree. And only 32 percent of adults over the age of 25 have one.”

And so there it is in a nutshell. The genius of Obama’s idea to make community college free is that it could go a long ways toward helping meet the ever-growing skills shortage that seems to plague the economy. Do we still need major K-12 reforms to inject better math and science into school curricula? Yes. Do we still need to come up with innovative ways to keep kids from dropping out of high school? Yes. Should businesses be more involved in making training and development of workers happen? Yes. Would free community college give a shot in the arm to filling the skills gap? You bet it would.

Some of the people who attend free community college would undoubtedly enter the workforce after their two-year degree, which would be just fine. Others would probably figure out a way to go on to finish two more years at another institution and get a four-year degree. There are already many programs in higher education that target specific two-year-to-four-year degree completion, such as programs that help registered nurses get their bachelor of science in nursing (RN-BN programs). If community college were free, I’d be willing to bet that enterprising institutions of higher education would expand such offerings, and could be persuaded to make them relatively affordable as well.

January 14, 2015   Updated :March 14, 2015   community college, education, skills, skills gap, talent management   

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