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Community colleges could help fix America’s looming skills shortage

America will soon face a shortage of millions of college grads. The right Community college policy could help.

Nursing students hug all their instructors as they enter William R. Johnson Coliseum on Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, for annual fall commencement exercises at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. (AP Photo/The Daily Sentinel, Andrew D. Brosig)

One way to look at President Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college is that it’s a belated attempt to keep the nation from tumbling into the chasm between the workers it has and the workers it will need.

By 2020, 65 percent of the nation’s jobs will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. At the rate we are now producing workers with needed credentials, we are looking at a shortfall of 11 million workers, says Tony Carnevale, the center’s director.

That education gap should come as no surprise, he says. Despite the increasing premium on a college education to enter the middle class, the nation has been falling behind in the production of college graduates since 1983.

“We knew this was coming,” he says. “In 1947, we knew the baby boom was coming. We knew schools would be overcrowded. We knew then there would be a retirement crisis in the 21st century. We still haven’t dealt with it. By 2042, a majority of the workforce will be minority. Half will be qualified. So, yes, there is a cliff out there and we are rushing toward it.”

The issue of lack of necessary education and training among minorities is crucial.

Between 2010 and 2030, the percentage of whites in the labor force is projected to decline by 15 million, says Brookings Institution’s senior policy analyst William Frey, author of “Diversity Explosion, How New Demographics are Remaking America.” During that same time, he says, there will be a gain of 17 million Hispanics, four million Asians and three million blacks in the labor force.

And Hispanics, who are more likely to attend community college, have one of the lowest high school graduation rates, lowest college-going rates and highest college remediation rates. Community college (and university) graduation rates are dismal for all groups, but particularly among Hispanics and African Americans.

“Their high school dropout rates are not as big as they were before, but there is still a huge gap in educational attainment,” Frey says. “In order for them to be successful they need this kind of opportunity. If the government can provide (free community college), it is clearly an opportunity for the country. The labor force would be shrinking if it weren’t for these young people. They are critical to our future economic success.”

Obama’s proposal, which would need congressional approval, would make the first two years of community college tuition-free for qualifying students of any age.

Lack of educational attainment among minorities is complicated. It’s a part-structural, part-pipeline issue: Segregated neighborhoods, children who come out the poverty’s instability and enter school unprepared and then fall further behind, underperforming, underfunded schools, barriers to public school choice, economic pressure to join the workforce.

On community college campuses nationwide, about half of students are white, 20 percent are Hispanic, and 14 percent are black. (Asians, American Indians, “other” round out the numbers.) But, Carnevale says, the number of white students is declining and minority students rising as a more stratified higher education system emerges: whites in four-year universities, minorities in community college. This is largely a cost issue.

Of those who enrolled in community college, he says, 32 percent of whites get an associate’s degree or better within six years. For African Americans, it’s 20 percent and 21 percent for Latinos.

Colorado, a state where about 20 percent of the population is Latino and four percent is African American, predicts that by 2018, seven in 10 jobs will require some high-quality postsecondary education. Right now roughly half of its residents 25 to 64 have a degree or certificate.

The state is aiming to boost its percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who have certificates or degrees to 66 percent by 2025.

“We’re far from that goal,” Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia says. And further when it comes to Hispanics and blacks, only 18 and 32 percent of whom ages 25 to 64 have the necessary higher education.

“If we can’t reach our underrepresented, underserved population, our minority population, we are never going to reach our goal,” he says. “That is the key for many states.”

The question is whether the president’s proposal would make a difference in these numbers. Obvious issues exist around remediation and retention. They are significant and won’t magically disappear with free tuition. The proposal would be a boon, particularly for working and middle-class families, who stand to gain the most since Pell grants cover the cost for low-income students.

“It will raise huge awareness about what you can gain by going to community college. People will find out you don’t need a bachelor’s degree, but can get certification in nursing, welding, advanced manufacturing. It will boost attendance among Latinos and African Americans, many first-generation students who may not have the money, but have the ambition.”

Carnevale says removing the financial barrier would be huge. It will be much stronger and an easier sell, he says, if it imposed the same “gainful employment standards” now applicable to for-profit colleges. Before ponying up any money for occupational or technical schooling, students and taxpayers should know there is demand for their certification, what the pay is and whether graduates end up working in those fields.

We have a skills shortage coming, Carnevale says, and no time or money to waste.