Rhoda Joseph's story is a familiar one by now. After a 20-year
career as a chemist, she was laid off just before Christmas and came
home "thinking the world was coming to an end." What's different is
that a silver lining awaited her in Bucks County, Pa. "I saw in the
paper, within days of my layoff, that [the community college] was
offering free tuition for displaced workers," she says. "I thought,
here's an opportunity for me to go back and see if I can fashion a
new career." Now she's enrolled in a paralegal class, hoping to
transfer her science skills into patent or intellectual property
law. In Pennsylvania, all 14 community colleges are offering or
finalizing plans for tuition assistance to locals who've lost jobs.
More than 1,000 people are already signed up, says Diane Bosak,
executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community
Colleges. Among the nation's 1,200 community colleges there is no
tracking of how many are making similar gestures, but examples can
be found in New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and
Washington State. "It's an ingrained value of the community
colleges, that they're there to serve the educational needs of their
communities, and they have always responded as quickly as they can,"
says George Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of
Community Colleges in Washington. Inspired by the colleges in his
home state of Pennsylvania, Sen. Bob Casey (D) has just proposed a
bill that would reimburse community colleges up to $1,000 for each
displaced worker whose tuition is waived. The funds would come from
the US Department of Labor's Community-Based Job Training Grants
program. "If the community colleges can get some help from the
federal government to make this a nationwide initiative, it can help
with ... a transition for those who are unemployed," Senator Casey
says. Oakton Community College, outside Chicago, launched its
"Reboot" program this winter for local residents laid off after Jan.
1, 2008. Tuition is free for at least one semester for five subjects
that are in demand, including computer programming and green
marketing. Eighty-three people signed up before the classes filled
to capacity, says career-services manager Robin Vivona . "We had
people who were driving buses [and] people who were in middle
management and everywhere in between," Ms. Vivona says. Without the
tuition waiver, many told her, they wouldn't have taken the courses.
"A lot of people thought of education as a luxury." Ron McMath says
he jumped at the free classes at Oakton's campus in Skokie, Ill.,
which he heard about through a support group at the local library.
After more than a decade in information-technology with an
international firm, he was laid off a year ago. He's gotten by on a
small fruit-and-vegetable franchise and part-time sales work for his
wife's company. But now he's in class for five hours a night, five
nights a week, to become a certified computer diagnostic specialist.
"I know how to build a computer from scratch now," he says, which
will add hardware troubleshooting to his skills. Despite their
desire to help, community colleges often can't find enough money,
staffing, or space to keep up with demand. …