Mayor Tom DeBaun: Free community college provides opportunities for all

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Should two years of community college be free for all Americans?

Indiana has a rich heritage in manufacturing. My own hometown of Shelbyville has evolved from the furniture manufacturing capital of the Midwest to one of significant foreign direct investment, most notably from Japan. Because of this evolution, we are seeing a transition from traditional to advanced manufacturing. More specifically, we are seeing those labor-intensive tasks being converted into an automated process.

We are also seeing a diversification into other sectors, such as biomedical, renewable energy and products not as reliant upon the volatility of the automotive market. Those changes oftentimes require a higher level of skills.

Unfortunately, the training of future workers has not kept pace with advances in technology. In countless discussions with our existing and prospective employers, as well as agencies like the Indiana Economic Development Corp., I hear time and again that a skilled workforce is the primary factor in the decision-making process when the subject is future capital investment. No workers, no new dollars; employers take their investment to a location that has better prepared for that change. This is where the value of a community-college education becomes most evident.

Shelbyville and Shelby County discovered quickly that they were not in the enviable position of producing a skilled future workforce. Thankfully, a group of forward-thinking governmental, educational and industry leaders decided to tackle this concern head on.

To that end, we engaged Ivy Tech Community College as the provider of a program called Advantage Shelby County. The oversight of this program is provided by that same representative group and, after the federal aid process is completed, local government provides the “last dollar” for a two-year program in which any Shelby County high school graduate can participate. The student is afforded the opportunity to choose a course of study that better prepares him or her for employment.

We began with four specific areas of study, one being advanced manufacturing and robotics. Five years later, we offer 17 courses of study. Those increased offerings resulted directly from the input of our local employers and by watching trends in the various employment sectors. This has translated into more persons being available for employment at a higher wage and our employers being able to find a more skilled pool of workers from which to hire.

When President Biden indicated that he wanted free community college educational opportunities for all, there was a sense of relief and enthusiasm from those employers and educators that have been working on this issue. My guess is that sentiment is widely held, as this worker shortage issue is not unique to Indiana.

It is my hope that the president’s plan, or something resembling it, will materialize soon so we can generate those highly skilled future workers. If not, we’ll certainly keep doing what we’ve done locally, addressing a universal need with a local solution.•


DeBaun, a Democrat, is the mayor of Shelbyville. He’s currently serving his third term. Send comments to

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One thought on “Mayor Tom DeBaun: Free community college provides opportunities for all

  1. So the schools are taking students on gratis (i.e., at a loss of revenue)? No? No sacrifice on the bottom line? Then it’s not free, and even in that situation , it’s not “free” (to the school).

    The government should be forbidden from ever using the word “free”. It has time and again demonstrated it does not understand the meaning of the word. It is a lie; an innocuous and appealing word that disarms the public from applying critical thinking. Ironic.

    Paragraph five in your article obliterates the title of your piece. To you, sir, it seems the definition of free isn’t the lack of paying for something, but rather a situation where the tax payer has money confiscated from him and applied to your cause. The nobility of the cause is applied as further justification and as a pretense, but on its face, it’s a tax payer funded project.

    That is the complete opposite of “free”.