Free college deserves debate, says LTC President Paul Carlsen
For USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Many UT students soon will be able to attend school free of tuition and fees through a new initiative modeled after the state’s popular Promise program.
Angela Gosnell, Knoxville News Sentinel
As president of Lakeshore Technical College, an open-access institution, I have a firm belief in the value of higher education — more people should go to community colleges like LTC, not fewer. In fact, it is hard to argue against post-high school education being anything but critical to achieving the American Dream.
The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce estimates that in 1979, workers with a high school diploma or less filled about 65% of good manufacturing jobs. Today, only 30% of those jobs go to workers without a college credential. This trend will continue as all employers, not just manufacturers, automate and processes become more integrated.
A topic of frequent discussion in the Democratic presidential primary has been “free college.” Higher education is a meaningful topic, and getting more people to college is a focal point this presidential election season.
As the discussion on “free college” unfolds, we will want to understand, of course, how a program of this nature would be funded, but we should also pay careful attention to four things.
First, the primary driver for “free college” proposals is college affordability — there is more than $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loan debt. College graduates and college dropouts carrying this massive debt are not able to meaningfully participate in the economy and are delaying major financial milestones. This is problematic, but when we look deeper at this problem we see a greater amount of student debt resulting from attendance at for-profit colleges. In 2015, the Atlantic published an article identifying for-profit colleges as “fueling the student loan crisis.” More recently, a New York Times article identified graduate schools as the biggest offenders in creating enormous student debt. If select institutions (for-profit colleges and graduate schools) are largely responsible for the crisis, it seems like the solution to the problem should be more targeted.
Second, would all programs at every college be free? If so, should they? We have a significant workforce shortage here in the Lakeshore community and across the country. Do we need philosophy and literature graduates? We absolutely do, but we need computer science, CNC technicians, electro-mechanical technicians and HVAC technician graduates more. Having a conversation about targeting financial aid to meet the most pressing workforce needs of our country is worthwhile. Tennessee had this discussion when it implemented the Tennessee Promise, which provides scholarships for the state’s 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology.
Third, there are programs in place locally accomplishing the intent of free college through public/private partnerships. LTC’s Promise scholarship program for high school seniors, Federal Pell Grants that cover all tuition for eligible financial aid applicants, and companies providing tuition reimbursement programs for their employees all fulfill the need for “free college” for the most economically disadvantaged in our community. What value-add does a sweeping federal policy bring?
Fourth, financial aid is limited to students pursuing traditional college degrees. Would “free college” follow the same model? If so, “free college” would not address the needs of a larger percentage of our workforce and employers. Most of our employers need specific skills, attainable through short-term credentials, but those short-term credentials are not eligible for financial aid. Why would we want to pay for more college credits than may be needed or valued? Taxpayers will want a solution that is effective and efficient, and it’s important to know that the traditional college route may not be the best one.
The more we debate in the open about things like college affordability, college access, skills gaps and entitlements the better. A broad discussion on ideas is welcomed, but then we must address the practical matters to make sure the proposed solution solves the right problem. We look forward to hearing more detailed policy discussions in the future.
Dr. Paul Carlsen is president of Lakeshore Technical College.
Read or Share this story: https://www.htrnews.com/story/opinion/2019/08/18/free-college-deserves-debate-says-ltc-president-paul-carlsen-wisconsin-tech-college/2032501001/