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Yet another option for free community college

Hormel Foods announced last month that it would sponsor community college costs for the college-age, dependent children of its employees. Under the “ Inspired Pathways ” program, Hormel will partner with community colleges in the cities where the company operates.

The program is not a scholarship per se. There are no academic or income eligibility requirements that the dependents must meet. To qualify, however, the student must earn a high school diploma and meet any other entry requirements of the partner institution. The program will begin picking up the tuition tab for its 16,000 employees’ children in Fall 2021.

The program is modeled after the company’s Austin Assurance Scholarship, which is available to all high school seniors in Austin, MN. It extends similar educational benefits to Hormel’s employees nationwide. The company believes that most dependents who will take advantage of the program will be first-generation college students.

Free community college tuition as a benefit of employment

Many companies have a tuition reimbursement program for employees. That’s nothing new. But Hormel may be among the first companies to offer community college tuition as a benefit for employees’ dependents.

Working with local employers to establish tuition payment programs for employees’ dependents doesn’t just benefit the students. It also helps strengthen the relationship between the employer and the community college. It may also help increase enrollment.

Free community college doesn’t have to be a political issue. It can simply be a way to lift people out of poverty and provide opportunities for people who might otherwise not have them. And this is apparently a really good year to create opportunities like this. Overall in Michigan, first time applications for financial aid by high school seniors dropped 5.5% compared to last year.

Think about that. In a year where many parents have lost their jobs, or lost income due to the pandemic, fewer first-year college students are seeking financial aid. And the declines in enrollment are most pronounced at community colleges. Community colleges cater to the lowest income students. They are the most easily affordable, and they can put people into jobs relatively quickly. And yet, some community colleges are seeing double-digit enrollment declines.

Rather than wasting time and effort objecting to free community college programs, our elected trustees and the administration should be finding ways to make it happen. Spend the next year designing a tuition-as-a-benefit program to offer to local employers. The Hormel model – tuition as a benefit for dependents – is reasonable, attractive and affordable. It also enables employers to make a low-cost, high-return long-term investment in the community.

Photo Credit: NHS Confederation, via Flickr