Viewpoint -- Two Cheers for President Obama's Community College Initiative

Sept. 4, 2009
Under the President's plan, only colleges whose programs boost the number of community college students who graduate or transfer to a four-year university will receive continued funding.

President Obama deserves praise for proposing a new American Graduation Initiative (AGI) -- a $12 billion training investment that seeks to prepare 5 million more community college graduates by the year 2020. Clearly, the President understands something employers have said for years: there are millions of well-paying jobs in this country that can be filled by workers with credentials other than a four-year college degree.

If approved by Congress, young jobseekers and dislocated older workers alike will benefit. It would dedicate $9 billion to innovative "challenge grants," $2.5 billion for new community college construction projects, and $500 million for new on-line courses.

The initiative's emphasis on accountability is also encouraging. For years, aid for higher education has been dispensed with too little focus on whether students were earning their degrees in a timely manner or moving successfully to full-time employment. Under the President's plan, only colleges whose programs boost the number of community college students who graduate or transfer to a four-year university will receive continued funding.

More resources for colleges are welcome, but it's not enough to make the AGI an effective strategy for employment and economic growth. Producing 5 million more community college graduates, or several million more certificate holders, will be a costly misdirected investment if they enter the workforce without the education and skills sought by America's employers. In our fast-changing technology and shifting global markets, community colleges must deliver training and education that is relevant to the competitive 21st Century workplace.

From Day 1, the American Graduation Initiative needs to embrace employer-driven curricula that reflect the demands of the nation's growing industry sectors. A report issued in July by the President's Council of Economic Advisers (Preparing the Workers of Today for the Jobs of Tomorrow) concluded that:

  • the fastest growing occupations during the next five to ten years will require post-secondary education and training;
  • America's post-secondary education and training system does not do enough to encourage students and trainees to complete their instruction; and
  • education curriculum does not respond effectively to ongoing changes in technology and labor market demand.

The CEA warned that too few Americans acquire strong enough basic skills between early childhood and high school, and that curricula for young adults must be better aligned with the needs of the modern workplace.

As Congress refines the President's proposal, here are several goals that should be included in the American Graduation Initiative.

Ensuring an up to date curriculum. Employers have a great deal of technical knowledge that must be shared with teachers to help make core curricula more relevant to a 21st Century economy. This is particularly true in the ever-changing, interdisciplinary fields of science and math.

Learning while working. The AGI should require a huge expansion of student internships and co-operative education programs. These techniques have proven to be successful in helping young people connect abstract lessons in textbooks and practical applications in the workplace.

Protecting the education and training consumer. State and federal officials must do more to protect students, jobseekers, and employers against institutions that fail to deliver quality instruction. The City of Los Angeles, the State of New Jersey, and a few other states and communities, have established online "consumer report cards" to rate all their education and training providers. At a minimum, the AGI should create a similar online resource with data on the performance of community colleges and their graduates.

Establishing Industry Standards for training certificates. The quality and credibility of high school and college degrees vary wildly in the United States. Credentials from even the best institutions are no guarantee that jobseekers have the skills that really count in a modern workplace: problem-solving; flexibility; critical thinking; the ability to work effectively as part of a diverse team. An industry recognized certificate is strong evidence that a graduate has mastered essential skills. Occupation-specific industry standards also let employers know what a graduate brings to the workplace while ensuring that individuals have portable credentials to take with them to their next job.

While aligning higher education and industry needs is a significant challenge, several states, including Ohio, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Washington, have already established closer linkages between educational institutions and employers. The President and Congress should look to these models and refine the American Graduation Initiative so that it achieves its full potential for growing a more competitive workforce.

Carl Van Horn, Ph.D. is professor of public policy and director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

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