The Trouble With Community Colleges

Community colleges stand to be major beneficiaries of the massive Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act passed by the House on Sept. 17, with about $9 billion in federal dollars to be directed their way if the bill becomes law. Community colleges, as locally based, take-all-comers institutions that typically offer two-year degrees for minimal tuition, are also objects of solicitude by the Obama administration. In a July speech in Warren, Mich., a recession-battered suburb of Detroit, President Obama expressed hope that a federal cash infusion would help an additional 5 million Americans earn degrees and certificates from community colleges over the next 10 years. By retraining at community colleges, displaced autoworkers and others who have lost their jobs during this time of 10 percent unemployment would learn “the skills they need to fill the jobs of the future,” Obama said. Earlier Congress had earmarked $3 billion in federal stimulus money for community-college retraining programs.

That’s the hope. The reality, as Elyse Ashburn of the Chronicle of Higher Education has reported in following a cohort of real-life displaced autoworkers who took generous buyouts from the Ford Motor Co. when it closed a plant in northeastern Ohio in 2006, is that using community colleges for job retraining is easier said than done. Of the 18 young people Ashburn tracked who used their buyout funds plus other Ford help to attend community colleges, only five had graduated or transferred to another college when Ashburn re-interviewed them in 2009. Five had dropped out, and eight were still working on degrees three years later. “Even for the successful students…getting a two-year degree has taken much longer than two years,” Ashburn writes in the Sept. 21 issue of the Chronicle.

The biggest problem was that most of the former Ford workers who had gone right out of high school to the assembly line were completely unprepared for college-level work. Many had to enroll in remedial courses, and others had no idea how to study or manage their time. One young woman found that her two-year nursing program was actually going to be more than four years of full-time study (she won’t graduate until December 2010) because she had to take so many general-education classes before she could even begin her nurse’s training. “There were times when I cried,” she told Ashburn. A young father of five wasted a year after the Ford line in community college class, then decided he’d be better off attending a trade school that offered a preservation-carpentry program.

These were people for whom Ford had made it relatively easy to go back to school, offering them four years’ worth of tuition, paying them 50 percent of their salaries, and covering their health insurance. They still struggled, and not one of the young people in Ashburn’s story is yet working some three years later in the career for which he or she has been training. Some may not even be able to find jobs in those chosen careers in which they have invested so much time. One of the more successful students whom Ashburn interviewed, a father of two who expects to get a two-year degree in radiologic technology in May (after four years of community-college study), told Ashburn that although a full-time job in his field pays in the mid-$30,000s (a comedown for unionized former Ford workers, who typically earned more than $60,000 on the line while still in their 20s), he knew of only three or four people out of the 20 in the graduating class ahead of him who found full-time jobs.

Those stories raise questions about whether community colleges, whose programs tend to be time-consuming and academically demanding, are really the best places for laid-off workers with family responsibilities and little preparation for college study, to retrain themselves for new jobs. Wouldn’t pre-job or on-the-job training by businesses prepared to hire them be a more efficient and less costly way to help those displaced from their jobs re-enter the workforce? The Obama administration’s efforts to boost community-college graduations and employment prospects at the same time seems to entail well-intentioned but misdirected use of federal money.


2 thoughts on “The Trouble With Community Colleges

  1. True, many people take community college courses without planning to earn a degree. Small-business owners may sign up for accounting courses, and would-be electricians for courses in the specifics of that trade.
    The trouble is that community colleges tend to be degree-oriented, whether in their vocational programs such as nursing or their general-education programs geared toward transferring to a four-year institution. Indeed, at many community colleges, the majority of students are enrolled in academic programs. These are the kinds of programs that require basic math and reading skills at the very least. And they’re programs that, because so many entering students lack those skills, generate enormous dropout rates. If you look at all the former Ford autoworkers interviewed for the Chronicle’s story, you’ll see that all of them enrolled in lengthy programs for which they either lacked sufficient academic backgrounds (and duly struggled) and/or study habits. It probably would have been better for many of the former Ford workers to train for well-paying blue-collar jobs that didn’t require academic skills–and some of them did, such as the guy who decided to drop out and take up carpentry.
    Community colleges could operate more successfully if they focused on trade-school models, but right now most of them don’t.

  2. The problem with simple statistics like graduation rates is that they don’t acknowledge the students whose goal never was graduation in the first place. What would be needed is a longitudinal study — of students who declared the intention to transfer, how many did so, or found a good alternative, vs. languishing? How many in a certificate program finish? (and, of those who didn’t, how many left due to a good alternative?)
    As for the remedial course issue, students should have a fundamental level of literacy and numeracy, but, if a student is studying in any of the more “vocational” programs (the standard “refrigerator repairman”) they should not be expected to up their language and math skills to the level required for true college composition or calculus, for instance. So, say, maybe they should have 10th grade skills rather than 12th grade “college prep” skills, as long as they’re able to learn the course material.

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