College is expensive. The institutions are closing. Enrollments have dropped.

No one knows what to do. There is a national gridlock over Biden’s loan forgiveness plan. State investments have increased slightly in public colleges, despite the fact that the benefits are long-term, intangible and many. These include identity formation, the development of community consciousness, the exposure to different ideas and cultures, and the improvement of interpersonal skills. The immediate costs of tuition, and the time required to earn a degree may be too high to justify them.

The 2024 FAFSA deferral adds even more obstacles to college affordability and enrollment for potential students.

The cost of attending college can seem out of reach, even for two-year programs. The assurances that college graduates will recoup their tuition costs within 12 years, and earn an average of a higher salary through retirement than graduates from high schools does not assist students who are struggling right now to pay the bills.

Families that depend on the financial contributions of students can’t wait for years to see a degree they are proud to use.

The affordability of a two-year career and technical degree that will earn a student an associate’s degree, and subsequently land them a job is incredibly important. Even as a college student, a recent San Jacinto College graduate in Pasadena described the harsh reality of the auto service technician field: “They claim that you can earn a decent living but you need to be pretty good to do what you are doing to make good money.” You don’t get help with tools either, which means that on top of all the expenses for living and survival, you also have to purchase them. A complete set of specialist tools can range from $8,000.00 to $30,000.00 or even more.

Students and their families suffer when students with low incomes are denied access to college or vocational training. Future success in rapidly changing industries like automotive technology is dependent on having a skilled and diverse workforce that sees college as an investment, rather than a burden. On the whole, teachers must find a way of opening up career and technical training to students with all socioeconomic backgrounds.

A possible solution is to create enhanced partnerships between industry and education that encourage students to attend college. Ford Automotive Service Education Training Program (ASSET), offered by 40 community colleges, is an example of a successful partnership. The ASSET program, unlike many other vocational degrees, has a built-in structure that allows students to earn while they learn. Some local Ford dealers pay for the student to attend college and provide a paid apprenticeship at the dealership during the 2-year period. This arrangement involves the student learning hands-on about engine debugging in the classroom and applying those skills to fixing engines at a dealership under the guidance of a mentor.

A local dealer in Odessa, is so eager to recruit ASSET students, that he pays the interns’ tuition for college if they maintain high grades. Even the number of hours spent in class is paid for.

This is the primary reason students at Odessa chose to enroll in this program. It also serves as an excellent motivation for them to work hard in class. One ASSET student said that she went to college to “get a job again or at least get a degree.” As I began to age, I decided to attend school either now or later. “They said that they’d pay it if you got straight As, which was an excellent incentive to me for going to school.”

ASSET students have also highlighted how this arrangement can make it difficult to continue in school. “If your dealership doesn’t pay you for being in class you will not be able to earn as much if you are in class for an extended period of time.” After a period of class, it feels like you have to get to work to earn enough money. If you do not feel the pressure of having to work to earn money, then you are able to concentrate more on your classes. You wouldn’t need to rush to the office to make up for time you lost because you were sick. The dealership will cover that.

Odessa’s dealership, which sponsors the students in question, agrees. It was determined that the dealership’s most effective way to reduce the costs of technician training and turnover is to remove financial obstacles to students success. There is no obligation on the part of students to remain with the dealer who sponsored them. However, recent ASSET graduates choose to continue working with their employer.

Everyone seems to be winning. Everyone seems to win.

We have to wonder, given these examples: why hasn’t the option of partnering with industries to pay for students been explored as a way to offset the financial burdens associated with attending four-year universities and colleges? If these partnerships are in place, why don’t the best practices be shared with other educators? Imagine that a bank pays for an accounting student to be certified in the company’s policies, practices and norms. What about a chemistry major who is certified by a drug company? For a single semester, perhaps? Imagine the possibilities of industry partnerships in areas such as minoring, micro-credentialing and certification. They could also be used to offset college costs.

The affordability crisis that Americans face can be addressed by bringing industry and academia together. These partnerships may help people come together to create new ways of working and learning that will offset the erosion in public confidence in higher education.

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