Community colleges continue to bask in the spotlight as President Obama proposed a budget that would reward companies for hiring their graduates.
In his fiscal 2017 budget proposal, Obama set aside $2.5 billion over five years to fund the Community College Partnership Tax Credit. This credit would tighten the connection between businesses that need skilled employees in high-demand fields and community colleges that train those future employees.
With a tighter connection, community colleges can incorporate more industry expertise, technology and real-world learning opportunities into their programs. In exchange for their help, businesses could receive a one-time $5,000 tax credit if they hire a qualified graduate from one of the programs they're partnering with.
"It really puts a stake in the ground about how colleges — particularly community colleges and businesses — can work collaboratively to support both the education of students and their eventual employment," said Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in New York City.
Community colleges traditionally help students learn mid-level skills so they can enter the local workforce immediately. But while their programs in high-demand careers have a major impact, they're expensive to teach, particularly with the cost of technology tools and faculty salaries, said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
It requires time and money to collaborate, and money is hard to come by, especially for technology including enterprise software systems or industry-standard tools for advanced manufacturing, Mellow said. It's also not easy to find companies that can pay for student interns, who frequently come from low-income families and need money to pay the bills.
For example, LaGuardia Community College works with an entrepreneurs accelerator roundtable to connect students with real-world learning opportunities. This business accelerator for the technology community gives companies about $50,000 and six months of time to operate in a co-working space. Because money's so short in these companies, they can't afford to pay students for internships, so many low-income students can't take advantage of the opportunity to work for them, even though it's a great experience.
If the tax credit becomes reality in the budget, even startups might be able to pay for internships. Small businesses often work on a narrower profit margin than big companies and struggle to find skilled workers, so this tax credit could provide some major benefits for them.
"It's in the DNA of community colleges to work closely with businesses," Baime said. "It doesn't happen perfectly, it doesn't happen uniformly and it doesn't happen as much as we like, which is exactly why we think this is a good idea."
But because this is a new spending item, the tax credit will need serious advocacy work to survive the budget debate. And that's something that the American Association of Community Colleges will be pushing for.