The incoming Biden Administration proposes significant investments in higher education such as free tuition at public colleges and universities for families with incomes less than $125,000 a year and having the Federal and state governments pay for two years of community college. These proposals sound like an effective solution to helping rural populations gain the skills to compete in the coming Fourth Industrial Age economy.
However, free college is not the best answer. Opposing free college may sound strange from someone with a Ph.D., three master’s degrees, and taught college courses for over twenty years. But my experiences as both a college student and professor led me to think of another solution.
The Problems with the Free College Solution:
- A traditional college education will take too much time – A full-time student will need at least two years to obtain an associate degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree. There are part-time options, but that will extend the length only of time needed for the degree. Students – especially adult students – will need to sacrifice years of prime earning opportunities until they are skilled for the workplace.
- Students must leave their communities to attend college – Community colleges are probably more available to low-income students than state universities and colleges. There are “education deserts” for many rural areas in which students will need to commute long distances to their classes.
- There are online options, but this depends on the availability of broadband. In many rural areas, a robust broadband Internet may not be available. The lack of broadband Internet also exacerbates the education deserts problem.
- Universities are not designed to train people for the workplace skills they need now – Community colleges and trade schools are the best equipped to teach students technical skills. Universities and colleges specialize in liberal arts education. A liberal arts education is valuable for teaching critical thinking skills and preparing students for leading people and organizations. However, a liberal arts education takes longer to acquire than most technical skills.
- Your typical full-time college professor is rewarded by their research productivity. Tenured professors are rewarded for the number of research articles published and research grants acquired. Teaching is not as valued and even discouraged if teaching interferes with the professor’s research output.
The Adjunct Faculty Crisis:
The adjunct faculty perform most of the undergraduate teaching for colleges and universities. The number of adjunct faculty hired over the last fifteen years has risen dramatically. Seventy-five percent of college professors are non-tenured. A recent article in The Atlantic describes the shocking reality of adjunct teaching.
“To be a perennial adjunct professor is to hear the constant tone of higher education’s death knell. The story is well known—the long hours, the heavy workload, the insufficient pay—as academia relies on adjunct professors, non-tenured faculty members, who are often paid pennies on the dollar to do the same work required of their tenured colleagues.”
After reading The Atlantic article and reflecting on my own experiences as an adjunct faculty member, I came up with the following proposal – Community Learning Coaches.
The Community Learning Coaches (CLC) Proposal:
- Determine which rural communities need help in reskilling the population for new jobs. The new skills can be how to run an additive manufacturing business, a vertical farm, a renewable energy plant, or similar Industry 4.0
- Create a training center with state-of-the-art classrooms, satellite Internet broadband, and an Internet café. These centers will be in targeted rural communities for easy access by the population.
- From among the adjunct faculty population, hire “community learning coaches” to live in the towns and run the training centers. The CLCs will determine the local people’s educational needs, create courses, deliver training, and coach students into self-learning experiences. The CLCs will be given room, board, and a competitive wage as they work to help the local population increase their opportunities in the new economy.
- The CLCs will be trained in the latest training techniques to help the local students rapidly improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities. The CLCs will be supported by a national network of educational experts linked through online communities.
My proposal solves several problems. First, CLCs help prepare rural communities to thrive in the new Industry 4.0 economy. Second, CLCs help to alleviate the issues that adjuncts face in the current university teaching situations. Third, universities and colleges can continue to concentrate on their primary mission of research. Diverting the money that would have paid expensive college tuitions to build community training centers staffed by CLCs seems to be a better use of federal tax funds.
Bill Brantley teaches part-time at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the Navy Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at billbrantley.com.