Barack Obama’s $100 million (£68.6 million) in grants to help make community college free sends a “key economic message” to young Americans that they will need some form of tertiary education to secure jobs, according to an expert.
During his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama unveiled America’s College Promise, a plan to make two years of community college free for “responsible students” – meaning those who attend classes and keep their grades above a minimum threshold.
On 25 April, vice-president Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden, an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, announced that the plan will be driven forward by a competition for $100 million worth of grants to employer-college partnerships – funded by fees gathered by the federal Department of Labor from employers who recruit foreign workers with high skills.
Mr Biden said in a speech at the Community College of Philadelphia that such partnerships “can help tens of thousands of students get the education and skills training they need to succeed in good-paying, middle-class jobs”.
So far, 27 new free community college programmes – backed by $70 million in combined public and private funding – have been launched after President Obama’s commitment.
The president’s initiative may increase international interest in the US’s community college model, which expands higher education access to disadvantaged groups who can either leave with their qualification or turn it into a full bachelor’s degree by transferring their credits (which amount to half a degree) to study at a university.
In a briefing document, the White House said that there are 7 million undergraduates in community colleges, “including many older, low- or moderate-income, minority, first-generation, and rural Americans” who as a result have “an opportunity to earn a quality, affordable degree or credential that meet the demands of a competitive global economy”.
The new “America’s Promise Grants” will “create and expand innovative regional and sector partnerships between community colleges and other training providers, employers and the public workforce system to create more dynamic, tuition-free education and training programmes for in-demand middle and high-skilled jobs across the country”, the White House said. These programmes will be tuition-free.
Laura Perna, executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said: “The signalling effect of the White House programme is very important. It underscores a key economic message to young people; that the jobs being created in the US economy now largely require some college education. Not necessarily a degree from a four-year institution. But definitely more than a high school diploma.”
Asked if the community college programme could lead to a decrease in the number of students heading to for-profit colleges – which have focused on students from non-traditional backgrounds – Professor Perna said: “In terms of competition it’s not really profit versus non-profit. The effect is more likely to be to shift enrolments from one open access sector – the less selective four-year colleges – to another open access institution – the community colleges.”