President Obama has proposed making community college free for students, claiming that this move would expand opportunities for Americans and better train our workforce. Others have criticized the plan, pointing out that it will cost taxpayers and won't encourage colleges to be effective and efficient.
Fiscal conservatives are quick to oppose any expansion of government, and rightly so: There’s no such thing as a free lunch, “free” education or free health care. That said, this proposal is aimed at solving real and significant problems in the U.S., namely the affordability barrier in higher ed. and the mismatch of available jobs and well-trained job seekers. These problems deserve our attention.
In the arena of technical education, the United States could learn from other countries. This year I had the opportunity to travel to Switzerland and learn more about their education system, which is consistently praised for preparing students of all levels for a role in the workforce after graduation. Switzerland currently has an unemployment rate of approximately 3 percent.
In Switzerland, high school students have two options: They can continue their studies on a university track, or opt for an apprenticeship. The design of these apprenticeships is very smart. Private industries bring students in and pay them to work a few days a week as they learn the skills necessary for the job – from manufacturing to mechanics to plumbing and electrics to cosmetology to nursing to tourism and so on. The other weekdays, students attend classroom studies.
This model allows industries to participate in training the workforce they need. It benefits students too. They take home wages and gain work skills like being on-time and on-task. More importantly, they see the direct real-world use of what they’re learning. (How often do American students say, “When am I ever going to use this?”)
At the end of apprenticeships, according to what my Swiss friends told me, about 80 percent of apprentices are hired full-time at the same company where they trained. Students who opted to not have an apprenticeship continue on a traditional university track and go on to get higher degrees. Importantly, this is not off-limits for apprentices, who can change their minds later and apply to university also.
In the United States, some cultural attitudes hold us back from embracing a policy like this. First, many Americans wrongly believe that everyone should get a 4-year college degree. It may be hard to accept or unpopular to say, but not everyone needs to go to college.
In fact, students who attend some college, but who do not complete their degrees, are much more likely to default on their student loan payments. Education may be a good investment, but only if students come out on the other side to jobs that reflect the value of their degree, and many don’t: Many young college grads are un- or under-employed, meaning they are left to struggle with their debt on low-wage or part-time pay.
Our cultural obsession with college affects the messages we send to K-12 students and has some negative consequences. We have a high dropout rate from high school as many students aren’t engaged and have no hope (or no desire) for college, and don't see any other paths to success.
We need to change our cultural perception of vocational and technical jobs and encourage kids to consider this pathway. Some American groups, like the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, have already made this their mission. Frankly, many 16-year-olds would be better served by the chance to train on-the-job and make a little money than to try to continue sitting in class, disengaged. Some American high schools offer vocational classes, but this isn’t the same as actually putting students in a workplace setting and giving them real-world responsibilities.
Another major issue in the U.S. is the unaffordability of college. This, too, is affected by an over-demand for college degrees, which is also fueled by the easy money available through our federal government’s student loan program. Because so many students can go to college with a loan, colleges don’t face as much downward pressure on their tuition prices as they should. A better policy would be to re-privatize student lending and tighten up the availability of educational loans.
You may have heard the saying that “nothing is as expensive as free.” That would be the case with “free” community college, which would essentially eliminate price competition from the community college market, and price competition is our only hope for truly holding prices down. But even better than sending more youth to community college, we could start better equipping them for technical and trades jobs while they are still in high school.
Free community college would be an expensive and inefficient endeavor. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider other reforms to our educational system that would open up opportunities to non-
college-bound students and better prepare them for a successful career in the workforce.
Hadley Heath Manning is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.