Tech industry may gain from Obama's free tuition plan

Seminole State College in Sanford Fla., near Orlando, graduates about 70 students annually with two-year degrees in its programming and networking programs. Local tech firms have helped to shape the college's courses.

The college's IT curriculum is guided by an advisory board of 39 firms, including representatives from Cisco, Siemens, Sprint and Lockheed-Martin. It "means they know that our students have the skills that they need," said Lenny Portelli, associate dean of Information Technology Seminole.

"If they go through two years with us, they'll get a job," Portelli said.

President Barack Obama's focus in his State of Union speech Tuesday was on improving the skills of U.S. workers, mainly through free tuition at community colleges for students who maintain a 2.5 grade-point average. "In a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to do more," said Obama, in calling for free tuition.

Making tuition free may increase the number of students who enroll in Seminole's IT program, according to Portelli. He said that about 30% of the two-year graduates go on for a four-year degree.

A leading tech industry group, CompTIA, is supporting the community college tuition initiative, and believes it will help IT firms.

"Many IT companies don't require a BS degree for their entry-level jobs," said Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA. So the IT degrees that are offered through community colleges "are increasingly meaningful for employment in IT."

But Thibodeaux said there are inconsistencies in the quality of some community college programs. One fix -- from the IT industry's perspective -- is to "align their IT courses to what industry needs."

Obama offered the free tuition in the framework of "middle-class economics," and while free tuition may help the middle class, it will also help tech firms that have links to community colleges.

Cisco, for instance, had long-standing networking training programs offered at community colleges. Many community colleges offer certification training in Microsoft, VMware and programs offered by CompTIA. There is also an IBM-backed program called P-Tech, a combination high school-community college in Brooklyn, N.Y. that provides students with technical degrees at no cost.

Portelli said it costs students at Seminole about $7,500 in tuition to complete their two-year degree in IT, not including fees and books.

Free tuition could boost enrollment by as much as 25%, he said. It could also bring in more students who take introductory courses and then move on to something else. But the free tuition plan overall, "would be promising," he said.

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