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Observation: Workforce Development at Community Colleges: Making the System Work for Workers September 2008

Workforce Development at Community Colleges: Making the System Work for Workers

By David Shaffer
Senior Fellow, the Rockefeller Institute of Government

David Shaffer

America’s workforce has long been the most productive in the world — but we know that in the years ahead, workers are going to need training, and training again, and again, to keep up with the competitive pressures of the global economy. Both candidates for president have put community colleges on the center stage of their plans for workforce development — Sen. Barack Obama in several campaign visits to community colleges, Sen. John McCain in his acceptance speech.

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David Shaffer is a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, focusing on community colleges and other education issues, and on economic development.

But workforce development at community colleges is, well, a work in progress. Getting the results the candidates seem to want may require some rethinking of the way the states structure, manage, and fund their networks of two-year public colleges.

Our community college system grew from what were originally called “junior colleges,” as some still are; the first one was founded in Joliet, IL, in 1901. For many of them, “college” is still the operative word. The up-front mission is to offer two-year academic degrees, and help students transfer to four-year institutions. In May, the Rockefeller Institute published a study of the wide variations in the ways the 50 states make use of their community college systems in for-credit, academic lines of learning.

But under the radar, more and more two-year colleges are steadily growing their workforce development programs — providing individual workers with new skills, running job-specific courses for local employers, and helping economic developers offer training as part of the package that attracts new employers to town. These efforts help put the “community” in community colleges.

Some of their workforce efforts are focused on for-credit, degree-granting programs to qualify students for jobs that don’t require a four-year degree — associate’s degree programs for nurses, police officers, EMTs, firefighters, technicians, accounting clerks, and drug counselors, for example. Still, almost 40 percent of associate’s degrees are in liberal arts and sciences, the top choice for those planning to transfer to four-year colleges rather than to enter the workforce right away. Nursing, the most popular work-specific course of study, accounts for only 9 percent of two-year degrees; other career fields like criminal justice or accounting are also-rans at only around 1 percent each.

The real action in workforce development at community colleges is in noncredit courses that aren’t designed to lead to a degree — and that’s the area where policy may need an update.

These courses cover job-specific skills ranging from reading blueprints to formatting Web pages. They aren’t tied to academic traditions like semesters and credit hours. Often they attract students who already have a college degree and don’t care about credits, only skills. Yet they can be vital to the job prospects of individual workers, to current and prospective employers, and to the whole community’s (and the nation’s) economic prospects.

When these noncredit programs work right, they can be every bit as vital to their students and their communities as for-credit, degree-oriented programs — perhaps more so. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, fewer than half of those who enroll intending to earn a two-year degree actually do so. By contrast, workforce programs often have a direct and immediate impact on employability, especially when they’re employer-specific.

Some of these noncredit programs are now huge. Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC, for example, enrolls about 18,000 students in for-credit courses but serves more than 28,000 in its corporate and continuing education division. Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, FL, has academic enrollment of less than 6,000 but serves over 25,000 in noncredit courses. Nationwide, it is estimated that 5 million students are enrolled in noncredit courses at community colleges, compared to about 6.2 million in for-credit courses.

Yet states sometimes seem to treat these noncredit workforce development programs as the unwanted stepsister of their community college systems.

According to a new study conducted by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, 22 states don’t provide any direct taxpayer funding for noncredit workforce development. Only three (Maryland, Texas, and Oregon) fund it on the same basis as for-credit courses. Employer-specific programs are funded largely, or entirely, by the employers themselves — which is, of course, a strong sign of the value employers place on these programs. But individual workers who want to arrange their own skill upgrades are on their own, financially, unless they are eligible for dislocated-workers grants or the like; normal college financial aid is generally not available.

Although almost all states set standards for the for-credit side of community colleges, only about half do so for noncredit programs. Many don’t count noncredit classes as part of the faculty’s teaching load. Only a few have even minimal systems for measuring the results of noncredit programs.

Not long ago, the National Association of Manufacturers said that “America’s employers are in the fight of their lives for skilled talent,” and identified community colleges as key to the solution. The presidential candidates have heard the message, obviously. But the task of figuring out the policy framework that will be needed to get it done has only begun.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.