| American Enterprise Institute
Rethinking the Mission: Community Colleges and Workforce Education
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- Among the education providers in a position to help close the middle-skills gap—unmet demand for workers with more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree—community colleges may be the only institution with the reach and scale to make the difference that’s needed.
- Existing incentives—state and federal metrics, pressures from accreditors, institutional funding, and student aspirations—encourage community colleges to focus on academic programs at the expense of workforce education.
- States hold the policy levers that can make the most difference in redressing this imbalance, creating incentives for two-year colleges to put skills and skills training more at the center of their missions.
New technology, a changing economy, declining labor force participation, and stagnant blue-collar earnings all put new emphasis on middle-skill jobs— those that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. Many changes are needed to meet demand and create opportunity for workers. But among the most important questions about the training of tomorrow is who: Which training providers can supply workforce education on the scale that’s needed to close the skills gap?
Among the most plausible candidates are community colleges—arguably the only institution with the reach and scale to make the difference that’s needed.
Community colleges bring many advantages to the task of workforce education. They also face many challenges and have a mixed record. But they are the institution we have—the most likely and potentially adaptable training infrastructure in most cities and states. The challenge for policy: to create incentives for these widely varied and uneven schools to put skills and skills training more at the center of their missions.
This paper explores five broad policy tools—levers state policymakers can use to create new incentives for educators.
New technology, a changing economy, declining labor force participation, and stagnant blue-collar earnings all put new emphasis on middle-skill jobs—those that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. Statistical definitions and estimates vary, but one calculation suggests that middle-skill positions account for 37 percent of all jobs, another analysis suggests the share is 53 percent, and a third finds 30 million jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree and pay more than $35,000 a year—45 percent of all jobs above that threshold.1 Yet according to many employers, the supply of middle-skill workers is not keeping up.2 What can be done to close this gap? Few questions are more urgent today for employers or job seekers. How do we prepare workers for the jobs of the future, particularly workers without bachelor’s degrees struggling to find or keep their place in the middle class?
Many changes will be needed: better information about what skills are in demand in the workplace, more efficient labor markets that work better to match supply and demand, more cooperation between employers and educators, and new, more flexible funding streams—to name just a few. But arguably the most important question about the training of tomorrow is who: Which training providers can supply workforce education on the scale that’s needed to close the skills gap confronting America in years ahead?
No institution can do it alone. But among the most plausible candidates are community colleges— arguably the only institution with the reach and scale that’s needed to make a difference, addressing existing skills gaps and those projected in the future.
Community colleges bring a number of advantages to the challenge of workforce education. They have experience teaching adults. They have worked hard to stay affordable: In 2016–17, the average cost for a full-time student was $3,520.3 Many have a long history of providing technical training. And while many—perhaps the majority—have shifted focus in recent decades, putting priority on preparing students for transfer to four-year colleges, most still offer an array of occupational programs leading to certificates and associate in applied science degrees in subjects such as allied health, automotive technology, public safety, and accounting.
Two-year public colleges face many challenges, and they have a mixed record at best. Too few students graduate. It often takes longer than it should. Schools lack resources and focus and often do a poor job preparing students for the world of work. Community colleges as they exist today are far from the ideal training provider. But they are the institution we have—the most likely and potentially adaptable training infrastructure in most cities and states. The challenge for policy: to create incentives for these widely varied and uneven schools to step up to the plate, putting skills and skills training more at the center of their missions.
- See Harry Holzer, Job Market Polarization and U.S. Worker Skills: A Tale of Two Middles, Brookings Institution, April 2015, www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/polarization_jobs_policy_holzer.pdf; National Skills Coalition, “United States’ Forgotten Middle,” February 6, 2017, www.nationalskillscoalition.org/resources/publications/2017-middle-skills-fact-sheets/file/United-States-MiddleSkills.pdf; and Anthony P. Carnevale et al., Good Jobs That Pay Without a BA, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2017, https://goodjobsdata.org/wp-content/uploads/good-jobs-wo-ba.pdf.
- See Tom Morrison et al., Boiling Point? The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing, Deloitte and Manufacturing Institute, 2011, www.themanufacturinginstitute.org/~/media/a07730b2a798437d98501e798c2e13aa.ashx; and Manpower Group, 2011 Talent Shortage Survey Results, 2011, https://candidate.manpower.com/wps/wcm/connect/6ecffb80470e244d9ac3da4a926374bc/2011+talent+shortage+survey_a4_lores.pdf?mod=ajperes.
- Community College Research Center, “Community College FAQs,” accessed October 27, 2017, https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/community-college-faqs.html.
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