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Tuition-Free Community Colleges in the United States: What It Could Mean

Ed Tittel ponders the potential impact of the far-reaching educational centerpiece of President Biden's American Families Plan.

Tuition-free community college for everyone! What are the possibilities?Sometimes a bright idea is enough to make one rethink how things can and do work here in the United States of America. If you look over the White House Fact Sheet on the American Families Plan, then you'll see that it’s full of such bold initiatives. One in particular stands out to yours truly.

 

I want to ponder what universal access to two years of community college could mean, particularly for disadvantaged and underserved youth. It’s hard not to see a host of potential advantages and benefits that a "universal associate's degree" pathway might offer.

 

My plan for today is to indulge in some speculation on this heady topic, particularly as it touches on employment opportunities in information technology (IT) and related fields. But first, let’s revisit the mission that community colleges already seek to fulfill.

 

Understanding the Community College Mission

 

If you do a Google search on “mission of U.S. community colleges,” then you’ll quickly realize that each of the 942 community colleges in the United States has its own mission statement. Here’s what Statista (the source of that number) has to say about them:

 

“Many community colleges also offer remedial education, General Educational Development (GED) tests, high school degrees, technical degrees and certificates, and a limited number of four-year degrees.” I have italicized the part that is most germane to IT education, training, and workforce preparation.

 

As for common ground across community college mission statements, three elements recur frequently enough to bear repeating: 1) affordable access to education, 2) workforce preparation as an engine for economic and community development, and 3) promotion of equity and diversity.

 

Tuition-free community college for everyone! What are the possibilities?As a longtime resident of the great state of Texas, I would be remiss in not reproducing the mission elements it prescribes for all of its community colleges. This list is quoted verbatim from Austin Community College, where I taught IT-focused adult and continuing education classes from 1996 through 2002:

 

1) Vocational and technical programs of varying lengths leading to certificates or degrees
2) Freshman- and sophomore-level academic courses leading to an associate's degree or serving as the base of a baccalaureate degree program at a four-year institution
3) Continuing adult education for academic, occupational, professional, and cultural enhancement
4) Special instructional programs and tutorial services to assist underprepared students and others who need special assistance to achieve their educational goals
5) A continuing program of counseling and advising designed to assist students in achieving their individual educational and occupational goals
6) A program of technology, library, media, and testing services to support instruction
7) Contracted instruction programs and services for area employers that promote economic development

 

What Could Two Free Years Mean?

 

With no place to go after high school graduation, too many students coast through those precious year and then put education behind them and plunge into workaday life. With an additional two years of free education available to them, I both hope and believe that more students would be motivated to learn, grow, and prepare while still in high school.

 

This is particularly true in underserved communities and communities of color, where families and individuals have long faced steep challenges in gaining access to higher education. Tuition-free community colleges could be a tremendous enabler, with the potential to level discriminatory barriers that stretch back to the founding of our country.

 

Tuition-free community college for everyone! What are the possibilities?Because community colleges also focus on remedial education, they offer an opportunity for less-prepared students to develop the skills and knowledge they need to tackle a college curriculum and to prepare themselves to enter the modern workforce. Workforce preparation is also enhanced by the items outlined in numbers 1 and 7 of our list.

 

In point of fact, quite a few of these vocational programs and contracted instruction programs aim to equip students for a range of IT-oriented job roles, including IT administration, cybersecurity, data science and analysis, cloud computing, software development and testing, and more.

 

I have to think that President Biden’s vision of infrastructure includes a more human-oriented perspective than the traditional view that focuses on bridges, dams, and highways. Not that traditional infrastructure should be ignored: The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reports in its America’s Infrastructure Report Card 2021 that the nation's bridges, dams, and highways are in dire need of attention.

 

I think Biden understands, however, that both the country and its citizens will benefit by increasing the size and preparation of the workforce available to work on existing infrastructure, and create new infrastructures. Providing more opportunities for more individuals to learn, grow, and prosper, today and into the future, makes senses for everyone.

 

The 21st-Century IT Workforce

 

With a widening skills gap across all IT professions — consulting firm Korn Ferry predicts that, globally, 85 million IT jobs could go unfilled by 2030 — two years of universal community college could help a lot to close the portion of that gap that exists in the United States.

 

Our country represents 4.25 percent of the global population, so at a minimum somewhere around 3.6 million unfilled jobs falls are available to our people. But actually IT jobs are more prevalent in more developed countries, so that number could be as high as 6 or 7 million by 2030.

 

Tuition-free community college for everyone! What are the possibilities?Two years of community college culminating in an associate’s degree in Computer Science or a related discipline could get a lot of people into high-reward jobs. We don't even need to focus exclusively on degrees: companies like Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle, Dell, Google, and Amazon are already helping community college students get job-ready IT certificates and certifications.

 

Yes, tuition-free access to community college educational opportunities will be expensive. Yes, it will almost certainly involve tax hikes to provide the funding necessary to make it happen. But I have to think that the impact will justify the costs.

 

Not only that, but the benefits to the whole country of educating or reskilling the individuals who are ready to take advantage of this windfall will be far greater than just getting IT jobs filled. In the long run, providing more citizens with good jobs and a living wage means a healthier, more equitable economy and polity. If we do it right, then everybody wins. I’m optimistic!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed TittelEd Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Business News Daily, and on Windows desktop OS topics for TechTarget and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at www.edtittel.com.