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COVID-19 recovery is the time for free college

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The Biden administration is pushing hard to “go big” in its COVID-19 recovery plan over some reluctance from fiscal moderates in Congress. With the daunting challenge of managing a recovery and a balky Congress, it may not seem like the right time to push another big idea like free college. Yet, if structured right, tuition-free college can be an essential part of economic recovery, be accomplished with relatively modest resources and even (as one of us has written elsewhere) win bipartisan support. A federal free-college program focused on community college and technical training for good-paying jobs will be critical to address dramatic changes in the labor market that COVID-19 has only accelerated.

Even before the pandemic, the displacement of workers due to automation was reducing opportunities in many occupations. And any recession, including the current one in which workers are jobless for an extended period, means skills can atrophy or become outmoded due to changing technology. This occurs as employers use the crisis of downturns to implement changes in how they produce goods and services. Moreover, the pandemic will almost certainly cause lasting shifts in demand away from some in-person services (business travel) and toward other sectors (health care and information technology). To keep up with the demands of growing jobs, workers will thus need to be retrained.

Indeed, colleagues at the Upjohn Institute have found that low-income, low-skill workers bear the brunt of COVID-19-induced job losses, jobs that in many cases are not going to return at all. As our colleague Brad Hershbein told the Associated Press, “disparities in job loss between high and low wage workers are unprecedented among U.S. recessions over the past 100-plus years.”

While well-educated professionals are keeping their jobs and incomes, many permanently laid-off service workers will likely struggle to re-enter the workforce without new credentials and skills. This is especially the case if they are trying to find a better job than the one they lost. There are good-paying jobs emerging in fields likely to expand in a COVID-19 reshaped economy — but almost all these jobs will require a postsecondary credential and training of some sort. Emerging jobs in fields like health care, technology, medical devices and communications will require workers with associate degrees or short-term certifications of the sort available at community colleges. A targeted free-college program can help make this happen.

The good news is that such a program doesn’t have to bust the budget. Estimates suggest that a nationwide tuition-free community college program for adult workers would cost between $4 billion and $6 billion in new discretionary outlays over four years — a drop in the bucket relative to the trillions of dollars being spent on recovery.

Any federal free-college plan for adults should be structured so that adults enter college with an identified career path, ideally in a field with strong local demand. This means there’s a need for navigation resources to help prospective students identify the right field for their skills and interests. The inclusion of navigation support in Tennessee Reconnect, that state’s free-college program for adults, shows how this can be done.

Institutions receiving a new wave of adult learners must also be prepared to provide them with resources to support progression and completion; the Biden administration’s plan to award grants to community colleges using evidence-based practices to increase retention and credential completion is a welcome piece of the puzzle. Plans must also be created to help adults overcome some of the barriers that make a return to education difficult, including childcare.

Evidence from Tennessee suggests that tuition-free community college can serve as a catalyst to entice many low-wage and underemployed workers onto a post-secondary pathway, while the enthusiastic response to Michigan’s Futures for Frontliners free-college program for essential workers and just-announced Michigan Reconnect initiative reveal the appetite among workers for these retraining opportunities.

More adults receiving credentials and associate degrees is the surest path to upward mobility for individuals, as well as a critical component of COVID-19 recovery.

Michelle Miller-Adams is a senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute and professor at Grand Valley State University. John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center, is a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and a research fellow with the W.E. Upjohn Institute.

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