“Do we want to give the wealthiest people in America another tax cut, or do you want to give every high school graduate the ability to earn a community college degree?” President Biden asked last month.
The president’s question, while framed provocatively, was not rhetorical. He was speaking at an event to promote his American Families Plan, which includes new spending that would enable Americans to attend free two-year community college. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal have introduced a similar bill in Congress. The proposals aren’t short of public support: 83 percent of Democrats back free public college and university, as do 39 percent of Republicans.
The announcement elated President Biden’s own party, even as it raised Republican objections. The reaction of both sides was predictable. Free community college is, after all, a pillar of the progressive agenda. By contrast, Republicans in Congress won’t support the measures because of their significant cost.
This divide is unfortunate for America. Free community college should be viewed not as a partisan issue or a battle over spending, but as an investment that will yield future returns in the form of economic growth. The bottom line: free community college will pay for itself handsomely in the long run.
The best jobs today require more than a high school diploma. A high school graduate makes $39,000 a year on average, a figure that jumps to $46,000 with an associate degree. That’s almost $300,000 more in earnings over a 40-year career. But nearly 30 percent of Americans over age 25 lack higher education.
This isn’t because of self-sabotage. The cost can be daunting. Tuition for a two-year degree at a public college comes in at $6,744. Transportation, rent, food, and books bump that up to over $32,000.
Republicans are right that a federal program won’t be cheap in the short term. President Biden’s plan calls for $109 billion to pay for free, two-year degrees. But that’s peanuts compared to what America will lose in economic output should our skill levels stagnate.
According to Douglas Holtz-Eakin — director of the Congressional Budget Office under President George W. Bush and chief economic advisor on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign — a lack of workers with associate or bachelor degrees will cost America $1.2 trillion in economic output over the next decade.
The lost output occurs when employers can’t fill jobs that need the specialized training higher education provides. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that even with record unemployment last year, employers have 8.1 million jobs left unfilled.
Employers struggle to find workers with the right mix of technical and soft skills. Some reports show that 83 percent of bosses can’t find the right candidates. Three-quarters believe that applicants don’t have skills they’ll need on the job. Besides abilities like teamwork and problem-solving, a 2020 survey found that 80 percent of employers want candidates with analytical or quantitative skills. Another 55 percent percent want computer skills.
Free community college can help close the skills gap by preparing students for the jobs of the future. In 2019, community colleges granted a million associate degrees and certificates. Nearly 60 percent of associate degrees and 94 percent of certificates were for health care, IT, business, computer science, and construction trades. Not coincidently, those fields are growing the fastest.
Those skills can help workers succeed outside of the traditional office, as well. Freelance job openings have skyrocketed amid the pandemic, and nearly 70 percent of remote workers say they’re open to such an opportunity. Some of the fastest-growing positions involve accounting, data analytics, and health care.
It’s understandable that fiscal conservatives object to proposals for free, traditional, four-year degrees. A degree in Film Studies or even liberal arts majors may not give future workers tangible skills they’ll need on the job. But investment in community colleges is fundamentally different. It’s a cost-effective use of federal dollars, a “bridge-loan” that recipients who otherwise wouldn’t go on to higher education will pay back many times over in higher income taxes and increased productivity.
Nearly a dozen states — blue and red alike — already recognize the benefits of free two-year college. Residents of Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey, and several others have access to some form of free community college. Now, it’s time the federal government jumped on board.
Brent Messenger is vice president of public policy & community engagement at Fiverr.