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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Brian Holland
October 20, 2015
President Obama’s call for a “universal community college” education is a bold step for envisioning workforce training differently. Two key premises underpin this innovative strategy: first, employers increasingly require at least some post-secondary education as a qualification for jobs. Second, workers are unable to access higher education due in large part to tuition costs. This proposed initiative serves to enhance and catalyze the economic mobility of low- and middle-income individuals and improve their outcomes in the labor market by having government underwrite the training cost.
The universal community college plan marks the second comprehensive effort by the Obama Administration to boost post-secondary educational attainment rates. (In the first term, the American Graduation Initiative was introduced but never passed.) There is merit in identifying a causal relationship between increased education/skills upgrades and an increase in wages (or improved job prospects in the labor market). At the same time, the current plan merits additional scrutiny to ensure its design translates into meaningful outcomes.
First, what course of study would qualify an individual for support? An initial review of the proposal suggests students would receive two years of free tuition, provided they maintain a minimum 2.5 GPA and attend school at least half-time. It appears the plan seeks to boost associate degrees at the national level. But this goal is not as simple as it appears. Degree completion would take two years only if a student attends full time and does not require basic skills remediation; yet we know this cohort often needs this prerequisite due to deficits in college-level reading, writing or math skills. So, will the plan fund remediation for students in their first year and then only one year of credit-bearing costs? Would the program have failed if, for example, only 30 percent of its recipients attend and complete a community college within two years, while 70 percent have not yet graduated but obtained some credits?
Second, what about the overall readiness for the new influx of students into an institution of higher education? First-generation college students can face obstacles in their new environment: different expectations for study skills; knowing how to use a library effectively; identifying mentors and receiving career advice; juggling school, work and extracurricular activities; and questions about one’s confidence and motivation. As the universal community college plan only covers tuition, how are other necessary costs addressed? If a community college’s enrollment expands under the program, how does it expand its capacity?
By raising post-secondary degree completion and attainment rates, the president’s approach suggests a credit-based community college education may be preferable for the intended recipients. Yet two-year colleges offer opportunities for adult learners to get workforce training in a non-credit environment. How then does the universal community college address them? Working adult college attendees receive neither grades nor scholarship support for certificate and credentialing programs. Yet it is possible that shorter attendance for these programs at colleges could meet post-secondary requirements in several types of occupations. What about amending the plan to assist incumbent or unemployed workers needing a supplemental credential or certificate to strengthen their prospects in a globally competitive labor market?
President Obama’s plan reflects one-half of the equation—labor supply—from the perspective of students. But the initiative must respond to another key question: how are employer needs for a skilled workforce addressed? A community college’s coursework might not be relevant to specific labor market requirements. Educational institutions must coordinate with employers in their communities to reconcile labor supply and demands. The allocation of scholarship funds might be based on a requirement that students enroll in studies that prepare them for fields with critical shortages, as reflected by local labor needs.
Much of the universal community college initiative must be fleshed out. We can hope the imagination behind this plan for higher education is matched with creative responses benefiting students, community colleges and employers alike and goes beyond tuition assistance itself.
Author: Brian Holland is director of the National Workforce Development Agency of the Cayman Islands. He previously served as a consultant at Strategic Partnerships LLC, Deloitte & Touche and in independent practice where he built workforce development partnerships and created models for workforce systems integration.