White House Push on Free Community College

The Obama administration announces a new $100 million competitive grants program to stimulate the expansion of free community college programs and connect college graduates to in-demand jobs.

April 26, 2016

Local and state-based free community college programs have grown rapidly across the country in the past year since President Obama announced his plan to create a national promise program.

On Monday the Obama administration sought to encourage more states and communities to continue expanding tuition-free community college by unveiling a $100 million competition for America's Promise Job-Driven Training Grants. The grants were announced by Vice President Biden at the Community College of Philadelphia.

"We're excited and encouraged by this because a lot of the local promise-type programs have been created with individual colleges, and it seems that each local community college and business and philanthropy and government agency crafted something that works just right for it, so we think this is a very exciting possibility that will hopefully lead to the establishment of meaningful programs," said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges.

The grants, which will be channeled through the Department of Labor, are expected to help colleges create tuition-free education and job training programs in partnership with their business communities.

They're also H-1B funded. Employers pay a fee to the H-1B visa program to employ foreign workers in jobs that require specialized or high skills. Those fees are a revenue source that the Labor Department collects and uses to help Americans build the skills to get those jobs, said Mary Alice McCarthy, senior analyst with New America. ​The new grants are similar to those from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training, or TAACCCT, program that disbursed $2 billion to encourage institutions to form partnerships with employers to improve career training programs.

"The administration is being smart in finding ways to move the free community college agenda further," said McCarthy. "I really applaud their creativity in an environment in which Congress won't move on anything. They're finding ways to keep this issue on the forefront."

The competition is expected to create or strengthen new partnerships and programs between communities, two-year institutions and the business sector in an effort to guide unemployed, underemployed and low-income people into in-demand middle- and high-skill jobs.

The economy has been growing and many employers are searching to fill job openings with workers who have the skills to help them produce and innovate, but in the past, too often workforce training programs didn't work closely with employers and the workers in those programs didn't know if they had a good shot at getting a good job, said Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council.

"The new $100 million America's Promise grant competition will build on the steps we've taken to fix the job training system," Zients said. "The grants will help place workers from all backgrounds by requiring training partnerships to use real-time information about job demands."

The partnerships are expected to work like one in southeastern Wisconsin between Gateway Technical College and SC Johnson, which has been a longtime partner with the college.

A few years ago Gateway Technical College created short-term training programs, called Gateway to Careers boot camps, to help address the skills gap in high-demand industries like manufacturing and telecommunications. Earlier this year SC Johnson donated $700,000 to the college to support the new Gateway Promise program, which provides last-dollar tuition support to low-income high school graduates.

That promise program is expected to help more than 1,700 qualified students, said Pamela Zenner-Richards, a member of Gateway's district board.

"Skilled labor in our factories in this country is becoming more and more important, and we need a labor force that can operate in a more computerized and technically sophisticated environment," said Fisk Johnson, chief executive officer of SC Johnson. "We feel incredibly fortunate to have Gateway in our community. They've done a stunning job training chronically underemployed and unemployed people."

Since Obama's announcement for national free community college more than a year ago, nearly 30 free community college programs have begun across the country. The administration estimates that more than $70 million in new public and private dollars have gone to serving about 40,000 community college students.


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