It Is Time to Reconnect America

Posted by Morley Winograd on July 30, 2020 at 2:07 PM

Plummeting state revenue streams due to the Coronavirus pandemic will undoubtably impact some of the state programs that make public college tuition-free. The popularity and effectiveness of such programs will however allow most to survive in one form or another depending on the nature of any federal help that is offered. But Congress and other federal policy makers can make a difference right now by partnering with states to provide free college tuition to adults as part of any plan to jumpstart our nation’s economic recovery.

A number of states, led by Tennessee, have pioneered tuition-free access to public colleges for adults needing associate degrees or industry recognized occupational credentials to secure the skills required to meet new demands in their local labor markets. These programs to “reconnect” those already in the workforce to new education opportunities have become central elements in these states’ economic development plans.

Tennessee Reconnect enrolled 18,217 Tennesseans in its first cohort (2018-19). These students, on average, were 33 years old and 70 percent female. They attempted and earned more hours, on average, than non- and pre-Reconnect adults. First year Tennessee Reconnect students achieved a 62 percent success rate with 11.8 percent graduating in 2018-19 and the rest retuning to community college in the Fall of 2019. 

Temporary federal funding for such programs should be a part of any economic recovery legislation Congress considers to help all Americans pursue better jobs and bigger paychecks in a post-virus America. Not only would such an initiative aid businesses confronting skills shortages and public higher education institutions struggling to overcome the impact of extended shutdowns, it would also help mitigate the current disparity in economic opportunity in communities of color across the country.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition’s Reconnect America (RA) proposal would provide states with a block grant, distributed based on population, to provide tuition-free access to higher education for the purpose of earning an associate degree or industry recognized occupational certificate for any adult 25 years or older who has earned a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Recognizing the revenue shortages most states are facing, ninety percent of the cost of the first two years of the program should be paid for by the federal government with states only required to fund the remaining ten percent to encourage as many as possible to offer such a program. Each year thereafter, the federal government’s share should be lessened as our economy recovers until, by the end of the decade, states should be absorbing all of the student’s tuition costs after their federal Pell Grant is taken into account.

In order to have their state’s Reconnect program eligible for this federal funding, each state’s program would have to meet the following conditions:

  • Colleges and local businesses would need to agree on a list of skills in current demand in their local labor market that the higher education institution would provide to area adult students before the college could accept Reconnect America students.
  • Colleges would have to agree to cap their tuition at current levels unless they exceeded the Pell Grant maximum payment of $6,000. In those cases, colleges would have to reduce tuition to $6,000 for Reconnect America students to ensure access would be tuition free.
  • Students would have to take at least a half-time credit load each semester and complete their degree or certificate in no more than four years. Students would have to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA while in the program.

The America that emerges from the Coronavirus pandemic will be markedly different from the country that entered this crisis. The challenge is how to make sure this post-crisis America is one with more opportunity and prosperity for all of our workers and businesses facing a radically disrupted economy. Rebuilding our human capital infrastructure has to be at the top of our to-do list if all Americans are to have more, not fewer, opportunities and businesses are to secure the talent they need after the pandemic has ebbed.

Morley Winograd is President of the Campaign for Free College Tuition.

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