Whichever candidate you supported in the 2016 president election, the campaign laid bare a profound and rising economic insecurity among Americans who fear getting left behind by an economy that rewards an entirely new set of skills. According to ABC News exit polls, more than six in 10 voters held a negative view of the economy, while a stunning 93% of those who supported President-elect Donald Trump felt that the country is on the wrong track.
There’s no shortage of coverage and analysis of our country’s many political divisions. Maybe it’s time we start talking more about the things that unite us – and continue to make America great in endless ways.
That conversations start with America’s higher education system, which remains the envy of the world. There’s a reason that the political and economic elite of every country vie to send their children to American universities. No other country comes close.
While our excellent universities are deservedly in the spotlight, America’s community colleges are often overlooked.
The economic benefits of completing a two-year community college program are significant. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for those who earn an Associates degree is just 3.8% — well below the national average of 4.6%. Students who move from community college to the workforce often start out their careers with highly marketable technical skills that make them instantly in-demand in the workforce and able to provide for their families.
For students who attend community colleges as a bridge to a four-year Bachelor’s degree, the opportunities for career advancement are even greater. The U.S. Census reports that graduating from a four-year college nets nearly $1 million more in lifetime earnings than a high school diploma alone.
This moment of transition to a four-year college, then, is a major tipping point. If we are serious about addressing the growing economic opportunity gap plaguing our country – and if we are serious about maintaining America’s leadership in the future global economy — this is where we should start. Much like our roadways and high-speed wireless networks, education is a vital part of the infrastructure upon which tomorrow’s economy will run. Without sustained investment, it will falter.
As Trump takes office in January, his administration must rethink the nation’s approach to the cost and financing of higher education. While there are a variety of scholarship and low-interest loan programs available, elected officials at the state and federal level should reward lower-income students who commit to a college education and excel. I’ve seen too many students discouraged from reaching for the stars because of the massive looming burden of student loans. Turning less-fortunate students away at the gates of higher education only short-changes our country’s economic future. Some cities have taken the initiative to provide free community college tuition to students who achieve high academic ranking; these efforts should be expanded.
But supporting aspiring students isn’t up to the federal government alone; we all have a role to play. Many community college students have limited exposure to the business world. With a limited horizon, they have limited expectations for themselves. When these students are exposed to all of the ways they can use their brainpower to improve their lives and enrich the world around them, they leap at the opportunity.
Students who attend community colleges are a reflection of the very best of America. They simply put their head down and get the job done – even when it’s hard, and even when quitting seems a whole lot easier. It’s time we shine a much-deserved spotlight on these students.
It’s time we helped them take the next step forward.
Phil Bronner is co-founder and CEO of Quad Learning and American Honors.