President Joe Biden’s proposal to make community colleges tuition-free is officially dead on arrival, news that could not come at a more unfortunate time: Recent enrollment figures show many colleges nationwide are in dire straits, particularly at the community college level.
As a result, low-wage workers — who have already been disproportionately impacted by Covid — are being left with fewer opportunities to earn the certificates and college degrees that are critical to helping them improve their life circumstances.
America’s community colleges can train the talent needed to satisfy current labor shortages while addressing income inequality in a meaningful way. But enrolling pandemic-impacted students in in-demand programs, ensuring that they complete those programs and ultimately placing them in well-paying jobs to fortify the country’s economic recovery will require more than tuition assistance.
Community college students are typically older than their counterparts at four-year institutions. Many are returning to school to pivot into new careers while balancing full- or part-time work, childcare responsibilities and financial obligations at home.
Some are parents. Many are the first in their families to go to college. Some are recent immigrants. Many worked in low-wage service sector jobs that have been hammered by the pandemic.
Regardless of their backgrounds, almost all low-income community college students need more than just free tuition to get to graduation.
As president of LaGuardia Community College — one of the nation’s most diverse community colleges and a pioneering City University of New York (CUNY) institution in Queens — I know first-hand how resilient and hardworking community college students are.
I also know that if we are determined to make a difference in the lives of the students most impacted by the pandemic, we need to start by ensuring that they all have the financial support and academic advising they need to get into and stay in school and earn the credentials required for living-wage jobs.
This means help with the nontuition costs of college: books, laptops, housing, childcare, transportation, broadband and more. According to a June 2021 report by the Center for an Urban Future, thousands of CUNY students drop out each year because of financial barriers that make attending classes untenable.
For these students the main financial hurdle is not tuition; it’s the cumulative burden of other costs — some as everyday as paying a subway fare.
At the same time, we need to encourage more students to pursue skills in career and technical education (CTE) programs in high-growth areas such as health care, technology, building trades and logistics — because earning a four-year degree is not the only pathway to a good job.
If we are determined to make a difference in the lives of the students most impacted by the pandemic, we need to start by ensuring that they all have the financial support and academic advising they need to get into and stay in school and earn the credentials required for living-wage jobs.
Major employers — from Google and Amazon to Salesforce and beyond — are ditching their degree requirements in order to broaden their talent pools and address labor shortages.
Community colleges offer nondegree workforce training programs that prepare candidates to meet employer needs. We can make CTE offerings more attractive to students by making them more affordable, especially for those seeking short-term training for industry certifications that will improve their career prospects.
This will require us to seriously expand financial support and scholarship options for students who are not pursuing traditional degree programs.
It is also important to link occupational training programs to associate degrees — whenever possible — so that graduates can return to college to earn the credentials needed to climb a career ladder to greater earnings and opportunities.
Free community college or not, it’s been exciting to see community colleges getting the national attention they deserve. Lawmakers, businesses and labor and community leaders need to work with our institutions to reverse the pandemic decline in community college enrollment and reimagine how higher education can best serve our most economically vulnerable communities.
Today’s students and tomorrow’s workers deserve it. An equitable economic recovery depends on it.
Kenneth Adams is the president of LaGuardia Community College in Queens
This story about community college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.