What the Data Tells us About 'Free Community College'

A recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education reveals a disturbing and widening gap in college completion rates between the nation's rich and poor students. While the percentage of high-income students earning college degrees by age 24 nearly doubled from 1970 to 2013, the percentage of low-income students earning college degrees during the same period remained virtually flat. Even more disturbing, while the number of low-income students registering for college increased during the period studied, only 20 percent of them actually were able to complete their bachelor's degree by age 24. The study comes amid President Obama's proposal to provide free community college to all, which will be an essential step towards enabling more students -- regardless of background -- to earn a college degree.

The U.S. made high school mandatory after World War II, and the impact of that policy resulted in America's greatest sustained period of economic growth. Enabling all of our young people to bridge the gap between high school and the academic and workplace skills they need to participate in the global economy -- without burdening them with crushing debt -- is a no brainer. Community college is the new high school now. It's essential that as many barriers as possible are removed and increased attendance enabled. But for this to work, we must focus on completion. We need partnerships among high schools, colleges and employers to help improve the rigor and relevance of what we teach. Funding to make college free is important, but we also need to ensure that funding focuses on improving college completion and links to well-paying jobs.

While it's easy to get lost in the complexities of educational data, several key findings stand out:

  • High school graduates are often ill-prepared for college. Community college completion rates average just 25 percent, drop to single digits in many areas, and virtually flatline for high school graduates who require remediation. Improving college completion rates is the real secret sauce here.
  • Lacking adequate preparation in high school, many of our young people struggle and are then forced to abandon their attempt at higher education -- leaving community college both in debt and without the degrees they need to succeed.
  • Meanwhile, there is a direct correlation between improved community college graduation rates and higher tax revenues. Coupling a degree with the relevant skills, community college graduates don't just get jobs, they get good jobs.

So, how can we ensure that our young people get the academic and workplace skills they'll need to be competitive? How can we close America's skills gap and strengthen our communities by enabling more to join the employed, tax-paying middle-class?

We need to retool our school systems and bring high school and college educators, government and community leaders, and businesses to the table -- each contributing specific expertise to improve college readiness, solve complex employment needs and prepare a new generation of workers.

One effective approach is a public-private partnership model that's preparing graduates for college and career through an innovative grades 9 to 14 program. It's called P-TECH, and it's grown rapidly from one school to more than 27 in less than four years. More than 100 P-TECH schools are expected to serve 100,000 students nationwide by 2016, and the first schools already are making their mark. At the P-TECH school in Brooklyn, an open-admissions program in which nearly the entire student body comes from low-income families, virtually all students are on track to earn their degrees. In fact, nearly 50 percent of P-TECH students are taking and passing full-credit college courses during high school, with many of those students outperforming college students taking similar courses.

Throughout the P-TECH ecosystem, developed by IBM, corporate partners such as Con Edison, Global Foundries, Microsoft, SAP and nearly 70 other educators and businesses are working in tandem with school districts and community colleges to equip a new generation for 21st century skills. Partnering employers are helping embed career readiness into the school curricula, providing each student with a mentor, and coordinating paid internships and workplace learning opportunities. Graduates of IBM-sponsored P-TECH schools will be first in line for jobs with the company.

Collaboration among educators and employers, and the intelligent use of local and federal funding, is what enables programs like P-TECH. These innovative initiatives work within existing budgets, but also depend on continued funding under the Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act -- the lynchpin to our ability to prepare students to enter the current and future workforce. On top of the monies needed for free community college, the President's 2015 budget will include $200 million in new funding for technical training for students and technology training for school leaders. Now it's Congress' turn to reauthorize the Perkins Act and modernize it to link with labor market trends, align high school with college, and engage employers in the effort to connect education to jobs.

The data is clear. The burden of preparing our young people cannot be the sole responsibility of schools. We must break down silos between high schools, community colleges and the workplace to help hardworking students from any background unlock their potential for success. We must support "free community college" in its various forms to empower our next generation.

An architect of the P-TECH grades 9 to 14 program, Stanley S. Litow is a former Deputy Chancellor of the New York City Schools and IBM's Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs.