Working Americans Want “Equal Time” in the Presidential Debates about Higher Education

The working men and women of Iowa would like some “equal time” in the higher education debates currently crisscrossing their state as presidential candidates seek their support in the upcoming caucuses.  

Most press coverage of the Democratic nomination contest would have you believe that just about all of the candidates are running on some version of “free college.”  The only considered differentiator between them is whether they are calling for two years or four years of free full-time study toward a degree. 

The differences between the candidates are actually more nuanced than that.  Dig down into some of their proposals, and you’ll see that a number of them complement access to traditional college programs needs with mentioned expansions in non-degree technical training.  If you’re an Iowan and you can pull aside a candidate at one of those intimate meet-and-greets in a local diner or living room, they’ll acknowledge that working men and women have been over-looked by mainstream education discussions… and that it has to stop!  (We know, because National Skills Coalition’s members in Iowa have been doing just that.) But that is all quietly under the radar screen. 

That has proven frustrating to working adults not only in Iowa but nationally.  According to both national and Iowa polls, adult voters across all party lines want to hear a more full-throated and inclusive set of higher education proposals that address their more immediate economic needs around job retention and career advancement.   Policies that make tuition aid available to someone holding down a full-time job who wants some shorter termed job-connected training at a local college. Policies that build partnerships between community colleges and local industry, to ensure programs are connected to real jobs with committed employers.  Policies targeted specifically at the needs of low-wage workers trying to advance, as well as laid-off workers trying to quickly get back into the workforce.

As readers of Insights & Outlooks know (since this publication has been part of the chorus on this issue), there has been a recent awakening within federal higher education circles to the unmet challenges faced by working adult students on our nation’s community college campuses.  As my colleague Katie Brown laid out in a recent Insights & Outlooks edition, a growing number of policymakers in Washington on both sides of the aisle want to make college “work for working people.” The bi-partisan bills that comprise National Skills Coalition’s “Community College Compact” are examples of such reforms:  making tuition aid and non-tuition supports more available to working people, enhancing investments in industry-college partnerships, and improving data on which programs most effectively prepare people for jobs and wage gains.

Many of these federal proposals are informed by models that have already been tested in states like Iowa.  Iowa’s popular GAP Tuition Assistance for short-term, non-credit coursework and its Pathways for Academic Career and Employment (PACE) program have made postsecondary study a possibility for many working Iowans who otherwise would never have been able to walk onto a community college campus.  Both Republican and Democratic state officials have championed these programs—most recently Republican Governor Kim Reynolds, who called on Congress and the Trump Administration to match Iowa in its commitment to working adult students.

That is why it’s confusing to Iowans that these types of practical, worker-friendly college education strategies are not more central to the current higher education debates.  This was confirmed for me last month during my participation in a Des Moines event co-sponsored by the Iowa Caucus Consortium.  Those Iowans recognized that without a more effective and expansive federal partner, Iowa’s model community college programs will not be able to scale sufficiently to keep millions of workers ahead of the technological changes and disruptions posed by the pending “future of work.”  In their minds, making college work for working people can’t just be an add-on to a candidate’s higher education platform; it needs to be as fundamental as needed expansions in access to traditional college programs.

The press needs to be reminded of this oversight as well.  Witness a petition signed by over 10,000 people urging presidential debate moderators to ask just one question about what the candidates intend to do to help working adults get the skills they need to stay competitive and employable in a rapidly changing labor market.  

The vast majority of working (and voting) Americans are looking for a national higher education discussion that finally includes them.  Let’s hope the candidates—Democratic and Republican—give them what they deserve as this year’s election cycle rolls out.