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Tuition Help for the Unemployed Gains Traction

4 minute read
Anne Fisher

Unemployed and need to learn new skills to get hired again, but can’t afford the tuition to go back to school? Help may be on the way. Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania is pushing for a new law that aims to pay community colleges nationwide $1,000 per student to retrain laid-off workers. Casey’s bill would set up the Unemployment Tuition Assistance Program as part of the Department of Labor (DOL). People filing for unemployment benefits would be notified that tuition assistance may be available to them, and colleges that volunteer to participate would register with DOL for reimbursement, which Casey says would come from existing funds already allocated to job retraining in the department’s budget.

His inspiration for the bill: Pennsylvania’s community colleges, 10 of which have enrolled 1,062 unemployed workers in free training programs this semester, at a total cost to the schools of $741,788. “They shouldn’t have to foot the bill alone,” Casey says. “My bill will encourage other community colleges across the U.S. to do the same thing.” Senate Democrats are working to build bipartisan support for the bill and expect to move it forward in the coming months. (See TIME’s special report on paying for college.)

A few states already have a head start. California, whose 11.2% March unemployment rate is the state’s highest since 1941, is rushing to funnel $415 million in federal stimulus money to 49 job-retraining centers. Most of the training will be designed to qualify people for jobs in infrastructure construction, health care and green industries like waste recycling and wind-farm technology. In Texas, legislators will vote next month on a final version of a 2010-11 budget, already passed by the state senate, that boosts spending on higher education by $1.5 billion. That figure includes $500 million in federal stimulus funding for workforce retraining and a $134 million state-funded increase in financial aid for students.

Michigan, whose 12.6% jobless rate is the highest in the U.S., with still more auto-plant closings coming soon, launched its “No Worker Left Behind” program in August 2007. So far the state has footed the bill — up to $10,000 per displaced worker — for 61,434 unemployed Michiganders to learn the math, technology and science skills they need to embark on new careers at companies like Hemlock Semiconductor, Dow Chemical and Dow Corning, which are investing and hiring there. Also in demand: the program’s newly trained nursing assistants, physical therapists and health-care technicians.

And then there’s Georgia. Enrollment at the state’s 33 technical colleges has jumped 10% over this time last year, with the biggest growth (12%) in students ages 21 to 35 and an 8% spike in students over age 36. Many of those folks are workers displaced by the recession, whose tuition is being paid by a statewide program called HOPE (for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) and who are drawing unemployment benefits to pay the bills while they attend school.

One of those students is Scott Harlin, 40, whose job as a drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation counselor was wiped out by state budget cuts two years ago. He’s now studying at Columbus Technical College, in Columbus, Ga., to become a Cisco certified network engineer. Says Harlin (whose grade point average thus far is 4.0): “Jobs are so hard to come by right now. Why not study and get qualified to do something that will be marketable later?” He adds, “I’ve always thought about going back to school, but I probably wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t gotten laid off. This is the silver lining to a pretty ugly cloud.”

The silver lining for Georgia taxpayers? HOPE doesn’t cost them a dime. The program, which has shelled out $4.4 billion in tuition money since its inception in 1994, is entirely funded by the Georgia State Lottery.

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