A working solution for ‘free’ college

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Politicians, policymakers, and university administrators alike understand a fundamental truth about the 21st century: in order for our nation to sustain its competitive edge, we must make higher education more broadly available. Proposals for “free college” range from free K-16 education to debt forgiveness. In my experience as a college president, I realize that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Our students each have individual needs and goals, and we must offer a wide range of solutions that address those issues effectively in real time. 

As the Biden administration and Congress grapples with the costs of higher education, broader access, student debt, and workplace preparedness, I offer a model from Miami University. Two years ago, we piloted our Work+ program, a collaboration with industry and state partners who recognized its low-cost, high-impact benefits for Ohio’s citizens and economy. The program is modeled after a collaboration between the Metropolitan College at the University of Louisville and United Parcel Service (UPS). Work+ leverages the federal law that enables companies to support employees’ educations up to $5,250 tax-free for both the company and the employee. Students work approximately 24 hours a week, are paid an hourly wage, and graduate debt-free with a four-year résumé of experience in a sought-after field. Miami’s Work+ program is helping students who might not otherwise be able to attend college. Approximately 42 percent of participants are underrepresented minorities and 47 percent are first-generation college students. 

Work+ rewards students who dedicate themselves to a career-building education and experience. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has endorsed this approach for all Ohio public universities. I believe its benefits can be replicated across the nation. 

There are several ways that the Biden administration and Congress can support programs like Work+. The $5,250 exclusion under the employer-provided education assistance has not been increased in more than 40 years and has not kept pace with the cost of most education programs. As Congress looks to improve college access and affordability, it should consider tax reform under Sec. 127. Specifically, Miami supports legislative efforts to double the $5,250 threshold and index it to inflation moving forward. Increasing the threshold benefits employers and their ability to attract and retain a talented workforce and it strengthens opportunities for students to attend college who might not otherwise have the resources for a college degree.

Work+ works. It is not a side job, summer internship, or short-term cooperative experience. It is a four-year modern-day apprenticeship. Students in the program work for the business year-round. This makes the model easily replicable and increases the opportunities for smaller businesses to participate. Work+ is a different experiential learning opportunity because business needs drive the program and higher education provides the wraparound services that empower students to succeed on the job and in the classroom. It is a win-win-win partnership for students, companies and our society. 

As a university president, my job is to empower students for success in life and career. Work+ achieves that. A graduate in their early 20s who enters the workforce with both a bachelor’s degree and four years of successful work experience at a respected firm will find an edge in the marketplace. Employers and the university together ensure that the student’s job provides meaningful career preparation — participating on project teams, receiving mentoring, accepting leadership roles, and more. The student acquires both practical skills in a field that leverages their education and the soft skills so prized by employers. At the same time, the real-world experience elevates the student’s appreciation for their classroom learning. The old question “What am I going to do with this?” gets answered every day, and the student brings valuable insights to the academic discussion. 

Companies are looking for talented, motivated, hard-working, creative, reliable employees who will stay on the job for years, not weeks or months. CEOs tell me about the high cost of training that must be repeated frequently for the same position in a revolving-door cycle of short-term employee commitment. Work+ students have the motivations of income, education, training and career preparation. Companies have long lamented that college graduates lack necessary workforce skills — new hires require remedial preparation they should have received in their education. Work+ students are not only fully prepared – they are already practicing. 

Universities, companies and government will drive our society’s success in the 21st century. We need well-equipped leaders and robot-proof workers to develop thriving economies locally and nationally. Communities seek to attract and retain top talent in key growth areas. Work+ powerfully synergizes those interests. Students are embedded in local businesses where they see the impact of their education and the potential for thriving careers every day. 

The Work+ model not only makes “free college” for the student a reality – it launches graduates into the dynamic workforce with a four-year résumé, sought-after real-world experience and leadership acumen. In the past, we handed off our graduates to companies — this model is hand-in-hand. The cost to society is minimal — a tax break for participating companies — and the returns are myriad. The program makes higher education possible for a far broader population of students and families seeking ways to afford college.

Gregory P. Crawford is the 22nd president of Miami University.

Tags Cost and financing issues facing higher education in the United States Debt Education Educational stages Internship Mike DeWine Résumé Student debt tuition-free college

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