| Forbes |
Last January, President Barack Obama announced a plan to make two-year community college free for all Americans. This week, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her New College Compact, a $350 billion program to make four-year college programs tuition-free for students at public universities.
Two other prominent Democratic Presidential candidates, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley issued their own plans to provide relief from rising college tuition costs and increasing student loan debt earlier in the year.
That this issue has come to the forefront of national politics is no surprise. College tuition costs have risen by over 1000% since the late 1970s, forcing students and their parents to take out ever more excessive loans. The current level of outstanding student loan debt is over $1.2 trillion, and continues to rise.
Two thirds of students graduate with some level of debt, and the average individual student loan debt is around $30,000. Many students struggle to make their loan payments after they graduate, which means they incur even more debt in late fees and interest. One in ten students simply defaults.
It’s clearly time for national leaders to address this problem. But are the Democratic Presidential candidates looking far enough ahead? To me, leadership is about addressing both today’s crises and tomorrow’s possibilities. Is sending more students to four-year colleges for a generalist degree the best move forward, for either the students or the U.S. economy?
A college degree is not just a social credential. It should lead to enhanced job and salary prospects. This second, and vital component – tying postsecondary education more strongly to the world of work – is what is missing from the current policy discussion on college. Students need clear pathways from education to work, and not just any kind of work, but the well-paying, technical jobs the U.S. economy is increasingly producing.
The fact is that many of today’s jobs do not require a four-year degree. What they do require are technical skills. Again and again, in conversations with employers across the country, I hear the same refrain: “we have jobs but we can’t find workers with the skills to fill them.” At the same time, an alarming percentage of recent college graduates are unemployed or under-employed. They have spent a lot of time and money on a credential that leads nowhere.
But there are some graduates who are finding work – those who come out of community colleges with an associate’s degree in a high-demand field like health services or IT. Community colleges partner with local employers and policymakers to develop courses and provide real-world work experience through internships or apprenticeships. This combination guarantees that graduating students have not only the technical skills needed to find jobs in their own communities, but also employability skills such as self-discipline, reliability, teamwork and communication.
Working with employers, combining academic and career training, and ensuring real-world work experience are not unique ideas. In numerous, strong European economies (Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands), students start thinking about careers in high school, and between 40-70% of them enroll in programs that combine rigorous academic programs with job-related training and experience.
The youth unemployment rate in these countries is much lower than in the U.S. In Switzerland, for example, the youth unemployment rate is an exceedingly low 3%, compared to a U.S. unemployment rate of 18.2 % for 18-19 year olds and 9.9% for 20-24 year olds.
America’s national leaders should take these clear and positive examples from community colleges and thriving western economies into account when shaping their own college reform policies. The best job and salary prospects are for people who have technical training and job experience along with their academic degree. This is true now, and will be even more true in the future.
The Democratic candidates are taking a strong step forward in proposing to make college affordable and accessible to many more Americans. They need to take another step and make it relevant.