Report | February 2, 2016

How Community Colleges Are Filling America’s Looming Skills Gap

Five ways to strengthen community colleges and the workforce through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

Economists predict that by 2020, five million US jobs will go unfilled because workers lack the necessary postsecondary education—and roughly 30 percent of those jobs will require some college, a certificate, or an associate degree. Unfortunately, many students can’t afford the rising cost of college. In the past 30 years, the cost of college has more than tripled and continues to rise. This is why access to financial aid is so crucial. According to The New York Times, recent changes to simplify the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) process has yielded positive results: a 21 percent increase in applications for the 2017-2018 school year.

In this report, we outline five ways to make financial aid more accessible to students. Community college is vital to the workforce. One-third of the college population—nearly seven million students, i.e., future employees—are enrolled in community colleges. Here are five ways to strengthen community colleges and the workforce through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act:

1. Incentivize improvement at community colleges. Policymakers can encourage the innovation that community colleges are known for by making college performance one of the criteria for receipt of a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG).

2. Maintain funding for Pell Grants (need-based aid). Community college students make up one-third of Federal Pell Grant recipients, and research shows that such aid increases students’ attendance and persistence at two-year colleges.

3. Allow students to access Pell Grants year-round. Recent evidence shows that this increases enrollment and accelerates students’ education.

4. Allow students to use Pell Grants for modern programs. Work-based experiences are not allowable uses of Pell Grant aid. Both community college students and businesses would benefit if students were allowed to use aid for these purposes.

5. Simplify the financial aid application process (FAFSA). Simplifying the grant aid application process (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA), and incentivize businesses to help families fill out forms, which could increase students’ college attendance up to 30 percent in the next two years.