Why business leaders love community colleges

Access to education is key to economic success, says one state leader

Access to community college education is key to economic success, Ralph Schulz and Richard Rhoda write for the Nashville Business Journal's "Nashville BizBlog."

Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, and Rhoda, executive director emeritus of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, argue that community colleges are crucial to business, providing a pipeline of qualified workers to fill an economic skills gap.

According to Schulz and Rhoda, the United States by 2025 will have a projected five million jobs with too few qualified employees to fill the positions. They also note that about 30% of the jobs that go unfilled are for individuals who have completed some level of higher education.

Schulz and Rhoda point to several advantages of community colleges, noting that they help fill immediate skills gaps in local economies by connecting high schools, postsecondary education, and local businesses, and provide students with greater affordability and flexibility.

They applaud Gov. Bill Haslam's (R) "Drive to 55" initiative, which aims to reach 55% of state residents earning a degree or certificate by 2025. The program includes the Tennessee Promise, which provides mentorship and two years of no-cost attendance to state high school graduates at any of the 13 Tennessee Community Colleges or 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs).

On a national level, they advocate for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, as well as:

  • Allowing students to use financial aid beyond the current limit of two semesters annually;
  • Allowing students to use grant aid for experiences such as internships relevant to their career goals; and
  • Simplifying the FAFSA application process.

Schulz and Rhoda note the importance of "removing small hurdles" such as filling out FAFSA, pointing to one study that found having tax preparers help families complete FAFSA boosted students' college attendance by 30% over a two-year period.

These changes will not only make it easier for students to access community colleges, say Schulz and Rhoda, but also "shore up the much-needed supply of qualified workers that our state and nation will need to close the 'skills gap' over the next decade" (Schulz/Rhoda, "Nashville BizBlog," Nashville Business Journal, 2/5).

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