If Gov. Jerry Brown approves a bill passed by the legislature in September, California will join Oregon and Tennessee on the list of states offering tuition-free community college programs.
As businesses turn to community colleges to train talent, some analysts say it just might help close the skills gap many employers are facing. According to one estimate, 65 percent of all jobs will require an associate or bachelor’s degree or other form of education beyond high school by 2020.
David A. Bergeron, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute, said free community college tuition could build a better talent pool if it is part of an overall strategy to enhance the workforce, including providing an incentive for people to finish college degrees.
Getting students in the door is half the battle, said Lisa W. Wardell, CEO and president of Adtalem Global Education, the for-profit education institution formerly known as DeVry Education Group. Getting them to graduate is the ultimate goal.
“Any effort to increase our nation’s college attainment levels would likely help industries to better meet their workforce needs,” Wardell said. “Making college more affordable is important … but so is providing support to students once they’re enrolled, offering flexible class schedules for working students and creating strong career services to help students find that first job in their new career.”
Closing the Skills Gap
While there is general agreement about the existence of the skills gap, the actual skills needed vary by industry and region. That’s why a regional and state-level approach via community colleges makes sense.
“It’s likely that we’ve got communities that need people with medical assistant kinds of credentials, but that might not be a national need,” Bergeron said. “If there are skills gaps, the governors and the mayors know what they need in their local communities.”
It also calls for a closer working relationship between colleges and employers. “Long-term labor projections are not an exact science, but local employers can tell institutions what they require in the near future to meet their workforce needs,” Wardell said. “Local colleges and universities need to take employers’ input into account when creating new academic programs or updating current offerings.”
Wardell pointed out that federal and state grants already make community college inexpensive for many U.S. citizens. She said letting students know about these opportunities and filling in funding gaps is a good first step. In terms of the economic impact, Bergeron said labor economists have found that investing a dollar in human capital development returns a seven-fold return on that investment.
“You can’t do better than that,” he said. “But you’ve got to pair the investment of money with investment of information about what the labor market needs. We’ve got to have more transparency in that school-to-work transition so people can make better choices about what programs to engage in.”
CLOs in Session
Wardell said it is important for colleges and universities to engage with employers. At Adtalem, they use employer advisory boards, meet regularly with local employers and have established career service programs that link employers with graduates.
Walgreen’s uses Adtalem’s Carrington College programming for pharmacy technicians, Chamberlain University for nursing or other higher-level health programs and DeVry University for technology or business education, Wardell said.
“Working closely with employers is important to keeping up with workforce needs and ultimately benefits the student by giving them access to programs with good career outcomes,” she said.
Learning leaders play a role in addressing the skills gap problem because they’re the ones who know where the gaps are. “They can go to the local community college, trade or technical school or university and say, ‘We need your graduates to have these kinds of skills,’ ” Bergeron said.
At Montgomery College, a community college in Montgomery County, Maryland, School President DeRionne Pollard said partnerships between higher education institutions and businesses are critical to closing the skills gap. In addition to hosting career fairs and offering a career coaching tool for students, Montgomery College provides customized training for about 70 organizations including InfoSys, BioTrac and the city of Gaithersburg, Maryland. Pollard said the school collaborates with local employers on many initiatives.
“We recruit practitioner faculty to bring current business and industry situations into the classrooms and laboratories,” she said. “We listen to our active advisory boards that are made up of industry personnel from each related industry cluster.”
They also rely heavily on industry credentials to provide a framework for course and laboratory educational design — and it’s paid off. In 2016, more than 8,000 students transferred to other schools to continue their education and nearly 35,000 alumni work in the Washington D.C. metro region, the school’s closest urban area.
But Pollard said affordability is critical. Poverty is the most significant reason students don’t enroll.
“Free college would certainly attract more students,” Pollard said. “Expanding opportunity is a win not just for students but for the workforce needs of our local employers and our community as a whole.”
Ave Rio is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.