Recession: Some Community Colleges Offer Free Tuition to Unemployed

Shaurin Mehta was laid off from his customer service job at United Airlines and has been unemployed since September 2008. He heard about Oakton Community College’s tuition free program on TV and decided to participate. “I’m looking for jobs all over, but I haven’t received a single call back. Even though I have bachelor’s in economics and psychology, and an associate degree in accounting, I cannot get anything,” said Mehta, 50, who immigrated to the United States nearly 30 years ago from India.

Mehta, like thousands of other unemployed individuals across the country, are turning to community colleges to either enhance skills they already have, or arm themselves with new skills, that will help them land new jobs. But unlike many of the others, Mehta will take classes for free, thanks to an increasing number of community colleges waiving tuition.

Some community colleges, like Oakton, are absorbing tuition costs, while others are offering reduced or tuition waivers through federal, state or locally funded programs, says Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

“It’s institutionally driven; it’s their way of trying to serve the needs of their community and those needs vary from community to community,” Kent tells Diverse.

Less than 10 colleges nationwide currently offer free tuition programs, according to a list compiled by the AACC. Other colleges have similar programs under consideration. More would like to, but with budget cuts, the money simply isn’t there. And those that are able to do it, can only offer free tuition on a limited basis.

Since Oakton Community College, in suburban Chicago, announced its program last month, demand has been overwhelming, according to Robin Vivona, career services manager at the school. Vivona says she speaks to hundreds of people each week. “We are getting calls every one to two minutes, and we could have three to five calls on hold at a time,” she says. “We tried to keep records at first, but we had to abandon that.”

Students eligible for free tuition have to reside in the college’s district and can only take specific courses — computer programming, green marketing and pharmaceutical preparation, Vivona says.

In Arizona, where unemployment stood at 6.9 percent in December, Jen Miles, work force development manager in Mohave County, says demand at her career services center has increased dramatically.

But there’s not enough money to serve all the residents who need it.

Federal money helps cover tuition costs for 105 unemployed workers per year, Miles says. Already the center has approved 65 people, and it’s only the second month of the year, she adds. “So that gives you a view of how many people are coming through our doors and why we need the additional funds to serve this increased demand.

Miles says she hopes President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan includes enough money to assist more people.

“We don’t have the sufficient funds to provide for all the demand coming in for training and support services,” says Miles, adding that 1,700 people came to her office last month seeking assistance.

“We’re working with them in our core services — to find jobs, understand the labor market and improve work readiness skills,” she says. “But what we need and hope will be forthcoming are additional funds to help do occupational training through a number of ways and that would include training at our community college or another approved provider of occupational programs.”

The stimulus bill approved by the U.S. Senate earlier this week, contained $1 billon for job training. The funds will help about 260,000 unemployed workers learn new skills for the tough job market, according to the office of Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who worked to include the funding in the bill.

Until Obama signs the stimulus package into law, community colleges offering tuition breaks must find other creative ways to continue the program.

“We’re offering this on a space available basis. This means students getting free tuition will be registering after those who have paid full tuition,” says Marta Kaufmann, a spokesperson for Bucks County Community College in southeastern Pennsylvania. “We’re using the classes we have and filling them.”

Kaufmann worked to help qualify unemployed workers for the free tuition program last month. “We had hundreds of people there, and they brought letters from employers saying they had been let go,” she says. “Everyone seemed very focused and interested in getting as much information as possible and moving forward with their lives and careers. There were people of all ages, experiences and occupations; it was a very diverse group,” Kaufmann says.

So far over 412 people have qualified for free tuition and enrolled in spring semester, and Kaufmann says she expects more.

To qualify, applicants must be Bucks County residents and show they have been permanently laid-off from full-time employment, according to a press release from the school. The free tuition covers up to 30 credit hours, and students have until August 2010 to complete their coursework, according to the school’s guidelines.

Similar guidelines apply at Oakton Community College. “We’re able to cover foregone tuition through revenue from other tuition and property taxes and other revenue sources. We didn’t start out with a specific budget for this, but we knew we could support this,” says Dr. Trudy Bers, the school’s director of research, curriculum and planning.

No additional staff was necessary, but “we may hire additional adjuncts to teach some of the courses,” Bers says. “We can cover that from our instructional budget. We also do eventually receive reimbursement from the state of Illinois in two years that we anticipate will partially offset the costs.”

Other community colleges are watching with interest to see what happens with these newly created tuition free programs for the recently unemployed. Vivona says community colleges in neighboring districts “called us up to figure out how it’s going, after they got calls from residents saying ‘Oakton’s doing this why don’t you do it.’ So they all have interest in it.”

Three kids and no job

Currently the percent of unemployed workers in the country stands at 7.6 percent, according to U.S. Labor statistics released last week. But the percentage of unemployed among minorities is normally twice as high. Unemployment among Black men, for example, is 15.8 percent — up from 9.2 percent a year ago — according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As the recession deepens, the numbers continue to get worse. More than 2 million Americans have been laid off in the last three months.

Before working in customer service for United Air Lines, Mehta worked as an accounting purchasing manager for another company. He now struggles to support his three children — including two daughters who are in medical school — with his unemployment benefits and his wife’s income. His son will soon enter college.

Despite the grim economy, Mehta isn’t giving up hope. When he heard about the free tuition at Oakton Community College, he realized that it could lead to a stable paycheck, even if the job is in a totally different field than what he’s already trained to do.

The college’s tuition-free program is only open to residents like Mehta. He has enrolled in four classes in the school’s green marketing program. “I’ll be paying for the books and probably some other fees,” Mehta says. “I have no other choice so I have to make it possible.

“As long as they’re taking good care of the major part of the amount, that’s not bad,” he adds. “It’s better than not getting educated.”

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