Is Investing in Community Colleges a Good Idea?

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President Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget contains an $8 billion program called the “Community College to Career Fund.” It would encourage community colleges, in partnerships with employers, to train about two million workers for future jobs. Since there are about 1,045 community colleges in America, the program would amount to a grant–over three years–of a little under $8 million per institution. Not all the funds, however, would go directly to the colleges themselves; some would go to state and local governments to recruit participating companies, some to underwrite an online entrepreneurship training program, and some to underwrite paid internships for low-income community-college students.

Using federal grants, the colleges would set up “community career centers where people learn crucial skills that local businesses are looking for right now, ensuring that employers have the skilled workforce they need and workers are gaining industry-recognized credentials to build strong careers,” according to a White House statement. The career centers would specifically train students for employment in health care, high technology, and “green” industries–areas expected, at least in the predictions of the Obama administration, to grow substantially over the next few years.

The federal money undoubtedly looks good to administrators at community colleges, which currently enroll some 6 million students, more than half of all Americans attending undergraduate institutions of higher learning. Nearly all community colleges, which typically award two-year associate degrees and shorter-term vocational certificates, report burgeoning enrollments during the current period of recession and shrinking funding from the strapped localities and states. There is a problem, however: community colleges have an admirable goal of providing second-chance education to young people who either performed too poorly in high school to get admitted to a conventional four-year college or can’t afford four-year-school tuition. But they have a poor track record in keeping those students around until graduation with any sort of degree or certificate.

The retention figures are not encouraging. According to the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, only 12 percent of community-college students earn an associate degree within the standard two years. That figure rises to 22 percent if students stay on for a third year and 28 percent if they stretch out their educations for four years, or twice the norm. Four-year colleges, by contrast, graduate about 53 percent of their students within six years. Students’ poor preparation for college-level work is clearly the reason for the dismal graduation rates of community colleges. About two-thirds of their entering students must first pass remedial math and English courses before they can qualify to take a single course for college credit–and most never succeed in passing those elementary classes. You can blame urban America’s failed K-12 system, or you can conclude that substantial numbers of young Americans lack the cognitive ability to succeed in college, but the fact remains that community colleges, with their bulging populations of directionless and under-performing students, may not be the best settings in which to produce a skilled workforce.

Exacerbating the problem is that most of the anticipated job openings in the U.S. during the near future will require workers who possess exactly the sort of math and reading-comprehension skills that most community-college students these days seem unable to master. There is currently a shortage of skilled employees in high-tech industries, and some two million manufacturing jobs are expected to open up by 2018 thanks to expected retirements–but most of those jobs require workers who can operate sophisticated machinery, follow complex instructions, and demonstrate some facility at math and statistics. The training itself for 21st-century jobs can be expensive. Mark Schneider, a former commissioner of education statistics who currently serves a vice president of the American Institutes for Research and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Associated Press that little is known about the effectiveness of most community college programs.

“We need measures of how well they are training their students, how well their students are being placed in the job market, and…are they making money?” Schneider told the AP. “We need to track them really, really carefully. And we need to make all that information available to students before they sign on…and before taxpayers subsidize all of this.”

A few months ago I surveyed some successful vocational-training programs at community colleges. In contrast to the Obama administration’s ambitious vision of using federal dollars to turn out large numbers of skilled workers in short order, these programs tended to be small-scale, dependent on modest grants from the involved industries themselves, and centered around nationally recognized certificates issued by private entities that attested to the recipients’ specific job skills and underlying cognitive attainments. Key to many of the programs was ACT’s National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC), which measures recipients’ math and reading abilities. One of the programs was at Shoreline Community College near Seattle. Shoreline used a grant from the Manufacturing Institute, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Institute of Manufacturers, to integrate the NCRC and certification from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills into a three-quarter-long manufacturing program. The program’s retention rate (95 percent) and job-placement rate (100 percent) were stellar–but it was also a small, highly focused program with only 50 students per cohort. The obvious question is: can that sort of success be replicated on a large scale with widely varying students, faculty, and educational standards–along with the potential for waste that a spigot of federal dollars always presents?

Of course it is also possible that the $8 billion that the Obama administration envisions for transforming community colleges into massive job-training centers may never materialize. In 2009 Obama’s budget promised some $12 million in federal funding to community colleges that aimed mostly at building and repairing new infrastructure. A Democratic Congress pared that amount down to $2 billion. With deficit-conscious Republicans in control of at least one chamber this time around, Obama’s promised $8 billion could be trimmed even more drastically.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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