Are Community Colleges Prepared to Prepare the Workforce?
By David Shaffer
Senior Fellow, the Rockefeller Institute of Government
In an election year that’s heavily focused on jobs and the economy, one of the few things both parties seem to agree on is that the nation’s community colleges have a key role to play in developing the higher-skilled workforce that’s needed to keep the U.S. competitive.
But are community colleges actually prepared for that responsibility? An important new study suggests that the answer is “maybe.” At best. Community college systems across the country report that they face increasing expectations to focus on the workforce’s needs — but that policies and resources are not always keeping pace with those expectations.
The study, Workforce Training in a Recovering Economy, was published just before Labor Day by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.
Based on a detailed survey of the directors of the community college systems in 49 states, it found that the lagging economy has sent community college enrollments up sharply, as the unemployed and the underemployed seek ways to upgrade their skills. But at the same time, respondents say state and federal dollars for workforce training programs at the colleges are tight or drying up in many states — and there are problems developing the facilities and recruiting the qualified faculty needed for those programs, as well.
It is an accepted fact that higher skills are needed to qualify for higher-paid jobs. So these workforce programs are obviously important to the individual students who participate in them. But they’re also important to business and the overall economy. Higher skills mean higher productivity, which U.S. employers need in order to compete with lower-wage locations abroad. Even at the trough of the recession, 32 percent of manufacturers, who generally pay higher-than-average wages, reported that they had jobs going unfilled because they couldn’t find workers with the right qualifications.
Ironically, the community college leaders report, enrollments in many states have been growing faster in transfer programs (generally liberal arts and science programs that can lead to transfer to a four-year college) than in career-focused for-credit programs. This trend may in part reflect the recession’s pressures on students who might otherwise have gone to four-year colleges at the outset, but who decide to take the more economical route of spending their first two years at a community college. A further irony is that growing enrollments in transfer programs might in some ways actually help, rather than undermine, the career-focused programs. Transfer courses often need little more than a teacher, a classroom, books and paper; they can in effect serve as “loss leaders” to generate funds that will help support technical and career programs, which often require labs, expensive equipment, and hard-to-hire faculty specialists.
This kind of push-pull between transfer and career programs reflects the diverse, changing and sometimes confusing mix of missions that community colleges are supposed to address, and the diverse funding streams supporting those state-assigned missions.
When two-year systems were first created, the idea was that they would provide a lower-cost (and closer to home) option for students who eventually wanted to transfer to four-year colleges, as well as educate students in fields for which only a certificate or a two-year degree was required (such as, at the time, nursing). But beginning in the late 1980s, the federal Job Training Partnership Act (and later its successor, the Workforce Investment Act) put a much broader agenda on the table — one that encompassed a wider range of skilled trades and professions, one-time and employer-specific training for a new plant or a new process, and even welfare-to-work programs.
Today individual community colleges may offer anything from plumbing to solar panel installation, from culinary arts to computer network security. In this year’s University of Alabama survey, 45 of the state directors say that business leaders in their states now see community colleges as primary workforce training providers (up from 34 in the 2011 survey), and 30 say they are being pressed for “quick,” non-credit training programs tied to specific, immediate employer needs (up from 17 in 2010).
In the course of these changes, community colleges have gotten seats at the table for planning and allocating federal and other workforce development dollars. But they are competing for those funds with other training programs that are not part of a college environment. Though there are those 45 states reporting that business leaders see community colleges as primary sources of workforce training, only 23 report that the colleges have won formal designation from their states as preferred providers of Workforce Investment Act training.
Two years ago the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University projected that by 2018, 63 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will require postsecondary education of some sort. That doesn’t mean four-year degrees, necessarily. The center said associate’s degrees and even community college certificates are the preparation needed for many fast-growing job categories — and in fact, “27 percent of people with certificates and 31 percent of people with AA degrees earn more than the average BA.”
But the Georgetown center said that on current trends, the U.S. will fall about 3 million graduates or certificate holders short of those needed to fill the jobs of 2018. The University of Alabama study suggests that the nation has not yet shaped a community college system that can make up the difference.