Commentary

Equipping the working poor with new resources for a better path forward

How Virginia’s Community Colleges’ free tuition program is helping raise the tide for all boats

August 10, 2021 12:03 am

J. Sargent Reynolds Community College in Henrico. (NBC12)

By Glenn DuBois, Ph.D.

It’s time we’ve had a frank talk about ALICE. After all, we have come to understand more and more the critical role that ALICE plays in Virginia’s economic health and prosperity, and after years of applying that learning toward strategies designed to help ALICE overcome generational inertia, we have reached an important inflection point, especially here in Virginia. As we emerge from our pandemic cocoons, it’s time for ALICE to finally set its sights on new horizons. So, let’s talk about how we get there.

ALICE is the United Way acronym that describes a significant demographic slice of the population: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Representing almost one third (29 percent) of Virginia’s families, ALICE households do not earn enough to afford basic necessities even as their income falls above federal poverty levels, thus disqualifying them for most federal assistance programs.

And despite full-time jobs (often more than one), they struggle to earn enough to support their family’s core needs.

Conditions for ALICE families are declining

As with all of us, ALICE families aspire to improve their situations. Upward mobility is, after all, the promise of the American dream. But recent research suggests that not only are ALICE households not improving their financial circumstances, but conditions for them actually are getting worse.

The cost of living is climbing, particularly for such essentials as housing, childcare, food, transportation and healthcare. While the general inflation rate for the national economy was just 1.8 percent annually over the past decade, the so-called ALICE Essentials Index was almost double – 3.4 percent. For families already struggling to make ends meet, the rise in the cost of basic needs further dilutes their buying power and capacity to “get ahead.”

On top of this, the wages paid to ALICE workers have been stagnant. As of 2018, almost half of Virginia’s workers (47 percent) were paid hourly, with one in two (53 percent) earning less than $20 per hour. In addition to minimal increases in pay, the research pointed to greater fluctuations in job hours and schedules, making it more difficult for workers to make firm budgets and financial plans.

From a public policy standpoint, it’s worth asking how we can help the ALICE cohort extract themselves from their predicament. Not only would doing so help improve the quality of life for thousands of Virginia families, but the state economy would also receive a significant windfall. One estimate holds that if all households were able to exceed the ALICE threshold, the boost to the commonwealth’s GDP would exceed $100 billion.

Education as the fulcrum to progress

Those of us in higher education recognize intuitively the role that education can play in helping raise the tide that lifts all boats. Virginia’s community colleges, in particular, are poised to help ALICE workers learn new skills and obtain higher degrees that will give them access to better-paying jobs and more fulfilling careers.

That is the premise behind a new initiative called G3. Signed into law earlier this spring by Gov. Northam, the Get a Skill, Get a Job, Get Ahead program helps low- to middle-income students pursue work in high-demand fields, from welding to cybersecurity to nursing. Qualified students (i.e. annual incomes under $100,000) receive free tuition (as well as other support) toward degree and certification programs within the state’s community college system, opening wide the door to opportunity for thousands of Virginia students.

Whether a student just graduated high school, is an adult learner is returning to school or is starting college for the first time, community colleges were designed to serve as an educational safety net for our community. And so we’ve designed G3 to support students who don’t have the luxury of focusing solely on education. It’s meant to support students with financial hardship, those with jobs and child care and other real-life obligations.

In just the first few couple weeks since its launch, we are already encouraged at the potential for G3 to make a tangible and enduring difference. Close to $3 million in G3 aid has been awarded within some of the following fields of study: early childhood education, health care, information technology, public safety and skilled trades, construction and manufacturing. Our data suggests that upon completion of their studies, students can anticipate earning between 25 percent and 50 percent more in wages.

The pandemic forced upon many of us a period of reflection, a chance to assess our lives and consider new trajectories. For many, many families in Virginia, G3 can be the springboard to an invigorated vision of their future.

Glenn DuBois, Ph.D., is the chancellor of Virginia’s Community Colleges. He can be reached at (804) 819-4901.

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