Strengthening Community College Workforce Training

By Community College Research Center (CCRC) – Published April 2021 by CCRCSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

The post-pandemic economy presents employment barriers to millions of low-income American adults. State and federal grants improving community college workforce education can support adult-postsecondary students re-enter the labor market and achieve higher earnings. 

Community College Workforce Education Landscape

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, each fall, 5 million students enroll in noncredit courses compared to almost 7 million older-adult-students who enroll in credit courses at community colleges. Overall, of credentials awarded by U.S. community colleges in 2018-2019,  57% of associate degrees and 94% of bachelor’s degrees earned at two-year college “are in  career-oriented fields in which direct employment is the student goal,” based on research from Georgetown CEW. However, adult-students tend to prefer noncredit programs that generally are shorter-term but result in lower earnings outcomes than for-credit programs. A 2020 Strada survey observed “strong interest in certificates and noncredit workforce programs, especially among adult job seekers.”

Postsecondary Credential Earnings Outcomes 

  • Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment (CAPSEE) found in a March 2017 review, completed associate degrees result in a 26% ($7,160) per year earnings premium for women, and  18% ($4,640) for men, compared to peers who did not complete a credential. 
  • CAPSEE also noted, certificates result in a $2,960 per year earnings premium for women, and $2,120 for men. 
  • On the labor market, high-demand associate degrees in the health and business fields offer per-year income earnings “about twice as high” as liberal arts and general studies associate degrees. In addition, “the potential value of an academically oriented associate degree comes with successful transfer to a four-year college and completion of a bachelor’s degree.” 

How Institutions Can Support Students in a Changing Labor Market

  • Due to the disruption of low-entry job skills demanded by employers as a result of “artificial intelligence, digitalization, and other technological changes,” proficiencies taught to students in “foundational skills (basic math, reading, and writing), non-technical human-centered skills (focused around communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and customer service), and generalized data literacy skills (so they are comfortable using a variety of software or platforms to input, find, evaluate, communicate, and interpret data)” will give job candidates the skills employers are seeking. 
  • Increasing course scheduling flexibility through online/hybrid course designs and reducing semesters from 15 to 8-weeks, can provide improved access to higher education and direct pathways to employment for many adult-workers.
  • Career counseling, tutoring, childcare, transportation, and food/housing services for students have been found by colleges to improve completion rates. 
  • Eliminating some degree requirements for students, such as the “one college model” used by Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina and other community colleges, organizes program offerings by “content and career area, rather than by whether or not they are offered for credit.” This model gives students flexibility to pursue any credential(s) that are currently in-demand from employers. 
  • Long-term, offerings that allow students to stack credentials toward “more advanced credentials and degrees in their field” can increase their career earnings compared to short-term credentials outcomes. 
  • Research on Ohio postsecondary students suggests stackable credentials offerings in IT and healthcare fields motivate students to enroll in multiple credential programs. 
  • College-Industry partnerships in developing credential programs provides curriculum flexibility to incorporate employer demanded technical skills, and direct pathways to employment for students.  
  • State-level policy “standardizing requirements and expectations across institutions in the state, and simplifying course and credit transfer” can promote the collaboration of credential programs between different institutions and reduce student-transfer costs. 

Challenges Community Colleges Face

  • There is no standardized network tracking noncredit achievement of students. As a result, little data on noncredit student outcomes exists. Furthermore, “students who complete noncredit programs often have to start over if they want to enroll in a for-credit certificate or degree program”
  • Community colleges face barriers to entry in the “hands-on training” market. In fields such as customer service/retail and healthcare, community colleges lack the infrastructure to train specific on-the-job-skills. Future developments in computer simulation may allow colleges to provide necessary on-the-job-skills training. 
  • To address racial inequity in high-demand programs, community colleges need to collect better tracking data to improve access to a diverse body of students. 

How the Federal Government Can Improve CC Workforce Training

  • Competitive grants to community colleges are federal investments that can provide targeted support to displaced workers and funding to “high-return” credential/training programs. Moreover, “[funding] priority should also go to programs that “stack” toward degrees, recognizing the long-term economic benefits that accrue to individuals who earn an associate or bachelor’s degree.”
  • Federal grants to state agencies that promote improved articulation agreements and centralized record-keeping among public, non-profit and for-profit institutions can help students complete credential(s) more quickly. Additionally, a centralized data-sharing model can provide systemwide insights on improving program design and student-access.
  • Require states and colleges to report on students in noncredit programs to the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). This data can develop outreach strategies for an often “hidden” population of students. 
  • “The State Longitudinal Data Systems program run by the Institute of Education Sciences has provided grants to help states link education and employment data, but there is need for further investment to capitalize on technological advancements in systems design and to use data for program evaluation and decision-making”

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