President Obama last week announced the fourth and final installment of his $2 billion workforce development fund benefitting community colleges. Colleges and consortia of colleges, working closely with industry, can compete for $450 million to create career training paths for high-wage, high-skill jobs.
Also last week the Tennessee legislature approved Governor Bill Haslam’s plan to provide free community college access to high school graduates. “Tennessee Promise” will pay the costs not covered by other scholarships or grants.
These two announcements illustrate the intensifying national spotlight on the crucial role community colleges play in access to higher education and skill development for ever-more-technical jobs. Obama is a Democrat and Haslam is a Republican, so this is not a partisan phenomenon.
“Working in partnership with states and communities, community colleges are well suited to promote the dual goal of academic and on-the-job preparedness for the next generation of American workers,” Obama said. His administration has placed a strong emphasis on making community colleges stronger. “They are gateways to economic prosperity and educational opportunities for millions of Americans each year,” he said.
“Tennessee will be the only state in the country to offer our high school graduates two years of community college with no tuition or fees along with the support of dedicated mentors, said Haslam when he announced Tennessee Promise in his state-of-the-state address in February.
“This is a bold promise,” he said. “It is a promise that will speak volumes to current and prospective employers. It is a promise that will make a real difference for generations of Tennesseans.”
Efforts have been made in the Mississippi for several years to pass similar legislation. This year a bill authored by Rep. Jerry Turner of Baldwyn passed the House but died in the Senate. Unlike Tennessee, no statewide elected official championed the bill.
Mississippi’s efforts to participate in Obama’s $2 billion program have met with limited success. Every state is guaranteed some money, but it wasn’t until last year’s third round that a Mississippi proposal actually won a competitive award. That was a $2.7 million grant to East Mississippi Community College. In the first round the U.S. Department of Labor negotiated a $2.7 million grant to a consortium of four colleges led by Itawamba Community College. In the second round the Department negotiated a $2.5 million grant to Hinds Community College. Other Mississippi colleges have participated in consortia grants that were developed and led by out-of-state community colleges.
Meanwhile Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee community colleges have won $9 to $12 million dollar awards in multiple years.
Mississippi’s community college system is one of the nation’s best. It is somewhat surprising to see our colleges out of the spotlight as the nation steps up attention and support for community colleges.