Will ‘America’s Promise’ Mean College Is Only for White Kids?

Critics warn that the White House’s plan to expand job training programs could block people of color from four-year degrees.
(Photo: Don Bartletti/‘Los Angeles Times’ via Getty Images)
Apr 27, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Call it the revenge of the working class: A White House initiative is offering community colleges $100 million for programs that connect students to well-paying, 21st-century jobs that are in high demand, as part of President Barack Obama’s broader plan to make two-year schools tuition-free.

Unveiled by Vice President Joe Biden in Philadelphia this week, the program, called America’s Promise, is intended to jump-start three-way partnerships among community colleges, industries that desperately need highly skilled workers, and low-income students who need postsecondary education but struggle to pay rising tuition costs.

RELATED: Students in This State Have Something to Celebrate: Free Community College

But experts say the program, which is open to older workers as well as recent high school graduates, inadvertently underscores the biggest issue in the widening gulf between black and white college graduates: a long-term, ongoing slide in funding for public two- and four-year colleges that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

“If you’re just offering free access to an underfunded and substandard education, it doesn’t increase [income] equity or offer a quality workforce,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center.

While the program can put black and Latino students and their white working-class peers on the fast track to a well-paying, in-demand job, said Jenkins, it could contribute to a rapidly stratified system for higher education: bachelor’s degree–level education for middle-class whites and job training for everyone else.

RELATED: These Are the States Where College Students Are Hardest Hit by Tuition Hikes

“College education is supposed to make you a more fulfilled person. [Knowledge] is for human flourishing,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, noting that most four-year college students enroll with an eye on the job market. “On the other hand, you’re not going to flourish very much if you live under a bridge.”

According to a White House fact sheet, the grants are awarded to community colleges that craft plans “to make two years of community college free for responsible students, letting students earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree and the skills needed in the workforce at no cost.”

Funded by the Department of Labor, the $100 million in grants are for community colleges “to expand high-quality education and training programs that give Americans the skills most in demand from regional employers for middle- to high-skilled jobs” in fields like manufacturing, health care, internet technology, and cybersecurity.

Schools get the money by creating “pilot and scale innovative tuition-free partnerships” with business communities “that will strengthen the pipeline of Americans ready for in-demand jobs,” which in turn will “attract more jobs from overseas and create more pathways for Americans to reach the middle class,” according to the White House fact sheet.

Low-income or underemployed students, the White House said, are strongly encouraged to apply. “Award recipients must extend tuition-free education to unemployed, underemployed and low-income workers to enter industries that require skilled labor,” including prospective students already in the workforce.

But while Carnevale and Jenkins both applaud the initiative as a good step, real, sustained solutions for the dearth of skilled employees with higher-education credentials—and the gap between poor and minority college graduates—would involve overhauling how the nation funds public two- and four-year colleges, and what it does to support students when they get there.

Too often, Jenkins said, community college students are forced to take remedial courses and don’t get good advice on what courses they’ll need to earn a degree. They have a dropout rate of 40 percent. While free tuition can lift some of the burden on poor and minority students, he added, it doesn’t cover costs like textbooks, lab fees, and transportation.

At the same time, Jenkins noted, states such as North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Florida, under conservative political leadership, began cutting community college funding, along with other forms of public education, in the name of balanced budgets and haven’t started reversing those cuts.

“They’ve been cutting indiscriminately and for ideological reasons, which is insanity,” he said. While there is room for improvement to avoid waste, “community colleges return, conservatively, $2.5 [to a state’s economy] for every dollar taxpayers put in.”

Carnevale said the plan can help poor and minority students reach the middle class through blue-collar jobs like air-conditioning repair, while a white student with a philosophy degree may struggle to find quality work.

But he said the public education funding crisis is creating a two-tiered system that results in white students earning four-year degrees while minorities only earn training certificates or associate’s degrees, which hampers upward mobility. Studies show whites with four-year degrees consistently earn higher salaries than blacks or Latinos with the same education, and the same is true for community college graduates.

“We’ve pretty much agreed, I think it’s fair to say, that we don’t want to create alternative [higher education] tracks, because those tracks would be occupied by low-income, minority, and working-class kids,” Carnevale said. “That would be tracking, and we don’t stand for that.”

On the other hand, “if you don’t do something, these kids aren’t going anywhere,” he said. Class mobility now “is pretty much about education,” and “a Pell grant isn’t going to pay much of the cost to Harvard.”

“It’s a dilemma,” Carnevale said.