As the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel grows brighter, our nation confronts a transformational moment. We can use recovery as the launching pad to build back stronger than ever, with targeted investments that will not just put Americans back to work but also help correct deep-seated disparities in our economic foundation.
Sustainable, equitable economic recovery depends on America’s best ideas, collective will and productive pathways to rebuild and propel a more-prosperous nation.
Shoring up more than 40 million underemployed and unemployed Americans with jobs they can ladder into lifelong careers with family-sustaining wages is a crucial first step we should take. This would let us modernize our cities and towns with the critical talent pipeline needed to rebuild America’s infrastructure, coupled with the routes to economic and social mobility for families.
Such an equitable recovery begins with critical infrastructure investment. Federal dollars to repave our roads, lay new tracks, restore bridges, stimulate business development, implement universal broadband and upgrade our communities will have transformative effects. Miami-Dade County stands ready to invest more than $500 million of federal relief dollars into programs to support short and long-term economic recovery and growth, including major infrastructure and capital projects.
But we will not be able to sustain our trajectory of growth without the promise of continuous education and training for the jobs of today and tomorrow on which our infrastructure and economic future depend.
Our nation’s youth and adults need the promise of education and training beyond a high school education. Going forward, most jobs will require a certificate or degree after high school. A starting point to make community colleges and minority-serving institutions tuition-free is an ambitious goal that more than 300 communities and 30 states plus Washington, D.C., have already undertaken. But they cannot do this alone.
A robust federal-state partnership — a College Promise for All — would invite our cities and towns in all 50 states and territories to benefit from millions more residents with the preparation for jobs to accelerate our nation’s economic recovery. This concept was recommended in January 2020 by bipartisan leaders, convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center, who wrestled with the tough questions of design, funding and implementation for more than a year. They recognized that rebuilding the country’s infrastructure with investments in equipment, materials and supplies, plus education and training for more Americans to pursue successful employment, will be key to driving our economy forward, regaining our nation’s world-class potential and advancing our global competitiveness.
In the 20th century, the United States made high school free and universal, which enabled our workforce to become the best-in-class worldwide. Today, that is no longer the case. While the United States had the most competitive economy a generation ago, we now trail too many countries that have a stronger, better-educated workforce. Simply put, an affordable education beyond high school is out of reach for too many Americans, burdened by unmanageable debt, rising college costs and lack of access to the training and education they need.
The College Promise for All policy proposes not only to zero out the cost of tuition and fees, it also seeks to provide students with the various supports they need — including those that are critical for adult students, such as childcare, career services and mentorship. As numerous studies have shown, these provisions increase college enrollment, persistence and completion for youth and adults, sorely needed for first-time job entrants, the unemployed, the underemployed, and employees returning to college for new careers.
In truth, our country does not have a shortage of workers — Americans lack the verified knowledge and skills to supply the in-demand jobs for a vibrant economic future. While we grapple with unemployment and inequities in access to education and the workforce, especially as we recover from the pandemic, we have an abundance of jobs lacking the trained personnel to fill them. The skills needed for jobs have changed exponentially over the past few decades, and continue to change every year, with rapid technological advancements and shifts in how we perform work. The way we educate and train Americans, especially those from low-income backgrounds and communities of color, has not kept pace.
Miami-Dade County is a prime example: We stand poised to capitalize on an influx of new technology investment and rapidly expanding and relocating industries, to fast forward our economy into the future. We must meet this moment by investing in workforce gaps and critical infrastructure needs to ensure our residents reap the benefits of this growth. One of the tools needed to correct the mismatch between the skills required for modern-day jobs, and the skill sets of those seeking work, is a national College Promise for All initiative.
Making community colleges and minority-serving institutions tuition-free is a necessary step forward to modernize our infrastructure and get people back to work, at home and across the country. Investing in the College Promise for All through the Federal-State Partnership will more than return its upfront costs in the years ahead.
In doing so, Americans will earn more throughout their lives. We will all reap the rewards of major infrastructure improvements and increased economic development coupled with greater health, safety, and crime reduction. And our nation will restore its prosperity and preeminence here and worldwide.
Dr. Eduardo Padrón is president emeritus of Miami Dade College and honorary chair of College Promise National Advisory Board. Daniella Levine Cava is Miami-Dade County mayor.