Community Colleges Can Speed the U.S. Recovery
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The coronavirus pandemic has left a vast number of Americans facing the prospect of long-term unemployment. Those who lack post-secondary credentials may take years to find steady, good-paying work, if such opportunities materialize at all.
Community and technical colleges can play a key role in helping these workers gain the education and skills necessary to advance their careers. Yet far from spurring an increase in community-college enrollment, the current crisis is doing the opposite, which threatens to slow the country’s recovery. Policy makers, state and federal, should increase investments in the two-year college system, offer more generous support to students, and create incentives for closer partnerships between colleges and local employers.
Prior to the pandemic, at least 8 million Americans were enrolled in two-year colleges, accounting for nearly 40% of all undergraduates. Compared to four-year schools, community colleges enroll a higher share of low-income students, minorities and working adults. Half of all community-college students hold down at least part-time jobs outside of school, compared to 40% of students at four-year institutions.
The pandemic has put the careers of many of those students at risk. Enrollment in two-year colleges typically rises during economic downturns, as students seek cheaper alternatives to bachelor-degree programs and unemployed workers return to school to pick up new skills. That isn’t happening this time. While enrollment at public four-year colleges has declined by less than 2%, community-college enrollment is 9.4% lower than last fall, with first-year students plummeting by 23%.
There are plausible explanations for the drop-off. The shift away from in-person instruction has disproportionately harmed poorer college students, many of whom lack reliable broadband access. And low and middle-income parents also have to manage their kids’ remote learning, making it harder for them to attend classes themselves.
Pre-pandemic, community-college students were already more likely to abandon their studies before receiving a degree: Of the 36 million Americans with some college credit but no degree, two-thirds attended community colleges. Over the long term, that can be costly. Students who complete at least a two-year degree earn some $5,000 more per year than those who don’t manage to finish, and also have lower poverty rates and higher life expectancies.
Policy makers should address this brewing problem quickly. Congress should allow students to use federal financial aid dollars to cover non-academic costs, including child-care expenses and at-home broadband. Restrictions on students’ eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits should be eased. The government should also lift lifetime-eligibility limits on federal Pell Grants to help older students obtain needed credentials and skills.
States, for their part, should expand efforts to target adults without degrees and steer them toward careers in high-demand fields, as Tennessee’s Reconnect initiative has done. Colleges should be offered incentives to promote evidence-based programs similar to the City University of New York’s ASAP, which has raised graduation rates by providing students with free tutoring, career counseling, transportation subsidies and other assistance. Federal grants can be used to promote closer partnerships between colleges, local industry and labor unions, so that students enroll in programs specifically designed to prepare them for available jobs.
Revitalizing America’s community colleges won’t be cheap. President-elect Joe Biden’s proposed $50 billion fund to invest in workforce training is a good start, but likely insufficient to meet the need. The U.S.’s commitment to community colleges should match the role they play, as engines of opportunity for Americans who need it most.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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