America has always been a land of opportunity. Part of the American dream has been the possibility of social mobility and the creation of wealth for every individual. Since education and skills-based training are key components in helping people achieve a higher standard of living, it is no surprise that these are important topics when considering ways to help the working poor. Providing opportunities to attend college is often seen as the way to accomplish this, but technical training through partnerships between business and higher education are gaining a more prominent role.
The White House’s announcement of America’s College Promise in January has re-energized the discussion regarding the role of higher education in helping the poor. Although it is still a long way from becoming a reality, it suggests funding two years of community college tuition to anyone who wants it. While numerous articles have been written for and against President Obama’s promise, nearly everyone agrees on one thing: many people are in need of a good education. Controversy lies in regard of how to provide it.
What kind of education should be provided? As higher education costs continue to rise, students are amassing greater amounts of debt to obtain their degrees. This debt often inhibits the accumulation of wealth and delays the ability to purchase a home or save for retirement. For those who are not fortunate enough to acquire scholarships or family financial support for a four-year degree, community college is an attractive financial alternative. Unfortunately, an associate’s degree does not usually significantly increase one’s salary.
Although an associate’s degree may not significantly increase one’s wages, obtaining a technical or professional certification through a community college can translate into higher earnings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, aircraft mechanics, health information techs, makeup artists and other professions all have higher median incomes than the national median and do not require a formal degree — just a professional certification. For instance, air traffic controllers typically obtain a specialized associate’s degree and have an annual median salary over $120,000. Helping disadvantaged groups enroll in these programs may be an effective way to help more Americans live the American Dream.
An often overlooked piece of America’s College Promise intends to provide support for these certificate programs. The American Technical Training Fund, if implemented, would provide support to programs that help high-potential, low-wage workers gain the skills necessary to obtain middle class jobs in energy, IT and advanced manufacturing. Programs with higher job placement and graduation rates would receive larger amounts of support, encouraging technical and certificate programs to provide meaningful training, which translates directly into employment.
In recent years, businesses have started taking greater interest in skill-based training programs. Corporations such as Google, Facebook and IBM have partnered with schools and certificate organizations to provide technical training. Graduates of these programs are often recruited by corporations and paid a competitive salary. Perhaps the most well-known type of these training programs are software “boot camps.” After a 10-week intensive training period, graduates of these programs are immediately interviewed for software development positions at a variety of corporations. Unfortunately, many of these programs are expensive and currently out of reach for most low-wage earners.
Providing sufficient education opportunities to the working poor is necessary to increase wages. Although the discussion regarding the role of government in providing these opportunities is ongoing, businesses and schools are partnering to provide meaningful education opportunities to low-income, high-potential people. If we make more concerted efforts in this area, we can make the American Dream come true for many more Americans.
Learn more about Obama’s Education Plan: Act Now
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development.
Richard Payne, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.