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The Future of Community Colleges Requires Policy and Funding Changes

Community colleges nationwide feel the burden of lower enrollment in credit-bearing courses. The effect of lower enrollment is compounded when you factor in that funding for workforce-ready (or noncredit) courses is dramatically lower than funding for credit-bearing coursework. Community colleges and workforce development programs are critical components of the infrastructure for labor, and supporting their continued success ensures the future of skilled labor in our communities.

The American Enterprise Institute issued a recent report outlining the success of community colleges in workforce readiness programs and how state and federal policies can help ensure that a state’s workforce readiness needs are met for years to come through the community college system. We pulled four key areas from the report to provide a framework for working with legislators and policy-marketing bodies to secure the future of workforce development in their area by empowering community colleges as leaders in this area.

Workforce credentialing is a $2 trillion industry split among many different providers. State and federal legislators can elevate community colleges as the verified source for workforce development and credentials, cutting through the noise of an overcrowded and ineffective marketplace.

Funding Formulas

Workforce development programs have a significant capital cost – for dedicated classroom space and equipment. Only six states across the country factor these costs into their funding for community colleges (Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Ohio, and Washington). Community colleges are intentionally designed to be lower-cost for students, meaning there is not a lot of opportunity to find the revenue for these expenditures elsewhere.

The prioritization of university transfer classes in the funding formula provides higher levels of funding for courses that can use the same classroom and equipment. This focus on college credit courses devalues the workforce readiness programs that provide skilled workers back into the local economy. With three-quarters of workforce readiness programs not receiving state funding, the burden falls on students to pay for the training they need to fill jobs critical to the economy.

There are multiple ways that state or federal policies could address this concern. States like North Carolina have seen success in funding formulas that provide parity between credit-bearing and noncredit coursework in the community college system. Meanwhile, states like Virginia are considering performance grant programs so that the school receives funding when the student completes the program and earns the credential – meaning that the community college continues to support the student after program completion and through their credentialing exam.

The key to success in any program is ensuring that colleges can benefit, regardless of size. Smaller colleges in more rural areas are a lifeline for workforce development in the community but are not always as rich in resources as schools in more populous areas. Ensuring all schools can expand and enhance their programs will help maintain vital programs and communities.

Student Assistance

The cost of community college may be less than a four-year institution, but it can be just as cost-prohibitive for those who most need the training programs provided. Forty percent of all community college enrollment is in noncredit or workforce readiness programs. Students in these programs are older and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than those in credit courses, meaning those who need the most financial assistance for job readiness are unable to acquire it.

Short-term programs need to be more affordable to meet students’ needs and certify the number of students required to address labor market shortages. The support mechanisms to provide financial assistance at four-year colleges need equivalents for workforce development. For example, Pell Grants do not apply to workforce readiness. States that have launched workforce grants are exhausting the funding well before the end of the year, showcasing the demand for these types of programs and supporting employers in their search for credentialed workers.

Work-Based Learning

Earn and Learn models create a structure for students to receive the skills training needed for a new or improved job without having to forego an income. These programs have a proven track record of success.

While often seen as a partnership between employers and colleges, apprenticeship programs require significant support and coordination to run effectively. States can assist in coordinating the efforts and amplifying the success of these programs while helping businesses launch and sustain an apprenticeship program. This type of coordination ensures success through shared time and resources, easing the investment from the employer.

Access to Labor Data

Community colleges want to skill students to meet the current labor demands in their area by offering courses that benefit students and employers. Staying on top of labor market trends requires access to labor market information. Compiling and distilling the information in this large category is challenging, and many community colleges need more capacity to take on this work.  There is room for state or federal agencies, who already have access to much of the data, to put it in a public space for easy consumption. An example of this can be found in Virginia with the Virginia Office of Education Economics, which provides a dashboard that features information on alignment between higher education and workforce needs. The data serves multiple purposes and needs but has specific relevance to community colleges as they work to meet local workforce demands. In this case, an insurmountable lift at the local level is much more feasible at the state level.

Supporting community colleges as providers of workforce development and credentialing programs provides clarity and purpose for students, employers, and community colleges so that workers can stay in their local community for their reskilling and credentialing needs.

Community colleges are drivers of the community. They serve local businesses and local students, and the economic impact from this has a ripple effect not just throughout the community but across the region and state. It takes everyone, from businesses to legislators, working together to ensure that these vital hubs of learning and workforce development have the resources that they need to continue to assist in economic growth and development.


About the Author

Brenda Drake

Brenda is a seasoned communications professional who is passionate about education and how it transforms lives. For more than 19 years, she helped educational institutions tell their stories to stakeholders in compelling ways. Brenda continually aims to assist organizations in making a significant impact. Her experience in education prepared her...

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