Harris N. Miller is a co-founder of the Campaign for Free College Tuition.
Virginia’s economic successes can blind us to its shortcomings. A major review recently found that Virginia’s failure to establish a Promise program — free college tuition along with mentors and community service — makes the state less competitive. While 12 states, notably our neighbor Tennessee, and more than 100 municipalities have established Promise programs to expand their skilled workforces, Virginia continues to take incremental and inadequate steps to do the same.
A proposed budget amendment from state Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) would establish a pilot program at Northern Virginia Community College that would ensure students who enroll in programs related to high-demand occupations — information technology/computer science, health care, manufacturing and trades, public safety, early-childhood education — can emerge from college debt-free. The state would contribute only after the student has maximized his or her federal grants.
The benefits to Virginians individually and the commonwealth as a whole are clear.
Employers see a skilled workforce as a sine qua non of doing business. Virginia has tens of thousands of skilled job openings that a Promise program would help fill quickly. The demand across ideologies for a skilled workforce is why Tennessee and Rhode Island, two politically disparate states, have Promise programs. And that’s why Favola’s bill focuses on high-demand occupations.
The benefits to individuals, whether right out of high school or older workers who have been displaced, is that the two years of additional education and training give them opportunities to grab the economic ladder that is out of reach. The despair that many people who are unemployed feel because they lack the skills to fill open jobs is substantial. Two more years of education and training provide the tools to overcome the hiring obstacle.
Tennessee provides a successful model. While most community colleges lost students as the economy improved after the Great Recession, Tennessee increased its head count. Thousands more students applied for the federal financial aid grants, known as Pell Grants, that assist poor and lower-income students. A higher percentage of students completed their programs.
Mentors are key to successful Promise programs. Too often, students who come from families that do not offer a model or even support higher education drop out when “life gets in the way” — a caregiver is no longer available, a bad grade, expensive textbooks. Many students in traditional schools have someone to help them survive such challenges and continue their education. For students who do not, mentors can step in, working with the colleges, to provide guidance as the student navigates some rough waters. These mentors come from all the key stakeholders — employers, governmental and nongovernment nonprofits, alumni and the schools themselves.
Both parties recognize the need for and desire to end the skills mismatch between applicants and jobs. We have to change our educational and training systems for the jobs of today. A Virginia Promise program is the most effective way to achieve benefits for employers, unskilled and less-skilled workers and, ultimately, all Virginians as the new injection of workers puts Virginia on the forefront of having a 21st-century economy.