THE BLOG

Debt-free Degrees, Workforce Development, and 100 Business Leaders at the White House

05/22/2015 02:43 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

Eighteen months away from the 2016 election, our national workforce and higher education policy arena already includes the campaign trail nearly as much as it does our nation's capital.

President Obama's proposal of free community college education for all Americans in January sent ripples through New Hampshire and Iowa arguably more than Capitol Hill--not just in terms of that specific proposal, but also in terms of the goal. Voters pinched by high student loans are pushing candidates to offer solutions equally bold in scope. Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager have both used the phrase "debt-free" this month to describe the goal their future policy proposals will strive for. Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has taken it a step farther left, proposing free college--and likely candidate Martin O'Malley has adopted the "debt-free college" mantra while proposing policies to ease the pain of existing student debt. On the Republican side, candidate Rand Paul has proposed to make college tuition tax deductible. The debate is already taking shape, and it seems an all-around win for education-seeking Americans.

Who will pay? What is the responsibility of the states? How will financial aid factor in? Should all students be eligible for subsidies or only those most in need? Is our goal to make college free, or debt-free, or something else entirely? It's an important national conversation, and by the time the election rolls around, hopefully there will be a greater national consensus and more specific proposals on how to make more affordable higher education available to more citizens.

As we dig in, I suggest that it is time to acknowledge that traditional higher education (i.e., full-time, recent high school graduates) may be the most common mental picture that many think of when considering these debt-free college proposals--but those students are actually a minority of all seeking higher education. Another critical population to address is employer-sponsored education for adults already in the workplace who have the K-12 education but are missing the 12+.

Worker education needs equal attention because 35 million people stand to benefit from deeper knowledge and more advanced skill sets, not to mention the companies that employ these people.

In fact, this was the topic of the recent summit in Washington on upskilling workers that I attended last month to present the work for College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, in concert with several large employers with whom we partner nationwide. The White House Upskill Summit was attended by more than 100 leading employers that collectively employ more than 5 million workers. These employers are dedicated to advancing their workers' education and job prospects in order to help create a better-equipped workforce. They congregated at the White House with labor leaders and technology innovators to talk about education as economic necessity because--"it's about the economy, stupid." Here's why:

Unemployment has dropped to 5.5 percent--the lowest level since mid-2008. For business, that means a tightening labor market, making it tougher to attract and retain qualified workers. Add to that the business reality that, once you find good workers, it is always a better investment to educate and promote them than to shop for new ones with greater skills. That explains the 71 percent of employers who reported that they would prefer to develop mid-level managers from within.

And there is growing momentum within businesses already addressing this corporate self-interest. For example, PepsiCo--one of the leaders recognized at the White House Upskill Summit--has increased its tuition reimbursement from 75 percent to 100 percent to make the higher education benefit more appealing to more of is own workers. Partners HealthCare, the largest private employer in Massachusetts, teamed with CfA to make it possible for frontline nonclinical staff to pursue accredited degrees for as little as $500 a year per employee--and sometimes, even less. Other major employers like Anthem, Chrysler, and Starbucks are shifting from experimental programs with college partners to making educational opportunities for employees a key corporate undertaking.

Here's where the folks seeking the White House need to take note: at schools like College for America, the combination of a low sticker price, active employer investment, and federal financial aid means the vast majority of the 2,000 students we've enrolled in the past year are already earning an accredited, debt-free degree. In 2015. There are lessons here for those on the campaign trail--on both sides of the aisle.

Higher education for working adults is an area ripe for a heightened level of attention. The country needs to address its 21st century education needs, which includes not only a conversation about who gets affordable education but also its efficacy and application to the real world. The 100 business leaders that spent the day in Washington know this and showed up because they recognize their new normal: address worker education and upskilling as a core corporate priority--or fall behind competitors who get it.