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How to close the skills gap? Make college free

US states hope their plan will `remove barriers to participation'

Closing the gap between what education offers and what employers need is one of the biggest challenges facing industrialised nations over the next decade.

Last year, a major survey of adult skills undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that many traditional world powers, including the UK and the US, were falling behind other countries.

Now, several US states are considering a way of improving skills and employability that has caused policymakers across the country to sit up and take note: scrapping college fees.

Politicians in Tennessee, Mississippi and Oregon have proposed making two- year community colleges free for all high school graduates, a move that one education expert has called the best idea for boosting participation in post-secondary education in a generation.

Proposals by Tennessee governor Bill Haslam, made in his "State of the State" address last week, are the most advanced and have drawn the most attention. As well as its 13 degree-awarding community colleges, Tennessee has one of the country's most robust vocational education systems, delivered through 27 colleges of applied technology. These are also included in the plan.

Mr Haslam said the $34 million (pound;20.7 million) annual cost would be met by diverting revenue from the state lottery rather than the education budget.

Community college tuition in the US is relatively cheap - the national average cost is $3,300 per student per year - and it is often offset by federal grants and other scholarships. Despite this, experts said that getting rid of fees altogether would have a big impact on many students, freeing up grant money for purchases such as books and travel.

Terry Hartle, senior vice-president of the American Council on Education, told TES that the proposals would be good for students and employers. "Many people would like to participate in post-secondary education but don't because they can't afford it," he said. "This would remove many of those individual barriers to participation.

"Also, a state that has widely available post-secondary education is going to be very attractive to businesses who are thinking about where to site a new facility."

Mr Hartle added that other states were paying close attention to developments in Tennessee, Oregon and Mississippi. "This is not a panacea and it won't happen overnight. But investing in the workforce is a very good decision to make," he said. "By making high-quality technical training available to everybody, you do have a chance to reduce the skills gap, providing it is what businesses are looking for. What good community colleges do is work closely with employers to make sure the skills they are providing are what local employers want."

George Boggs, former head of the American Association of Community Colleges, told TES that the proposals aligned with the original vision for community colleges outlined in a presidential commission set up by Harry Truman after the Second World War. The commission recommended that a nationwide network of two-year community colleges should provide free post-secondary education. Although the network developed quickly, very few states offered free tuition.

California, which has the country's largest community college system, was the exception. It eventually introduced fees in the early 1980s, but they remain among the lowest in the US.

Dr Boggs said that although free tuition would be a positive move, there were still concerns. "Each state is going to have to decide whether it has the revenue source to do this," he explained. "While Tennessee has the funds to do this at the moment, can they sustain it in the long term?

"It could also threaten freshman enrolments, because some students who might have gone on to university may stay in community college instead if it's free."

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