Community colleges at forefront of workforce development in U.S.
By DUANE M. ELLING
Amy Linder of Lakeville, Michigan, says she began preparing for a career in child development at the age of 9.
“I started by babysitting — with supervision, of course — for little kids in my neighborhood,” said Linder, now 25. “I kept at it through high school and realized that I really just loved working with kids.”
After graduating from high school, she took positions with local child-care programs and in 2006 landed a part-time job with an afterschool initiative. Even with that new opportunity, however, she knew she needed to continue her education in order to strengthen her skills and expand her career.
While the idea of attending college was intimidating for her, Linder gathered up her courage and checked out the learning opportunities available at Mott Community College (MCC) in Flint. She enrolled in its child development program in September 2007.
|Mott Community College, in Flint, Michigan, is one of 26 schools participating in the national Breaking Through demonstration.
For many families, the nation’s 1,600-plus community colleges represent an affordable, accessible option for getting an advanced education and gaining entry to living-wage jobs. And several demonstration projects — all funded by the Mott Foundation — have set out to explore ways those schools can help families create new opportunities for themselves in the classroom and the workplace.
Helping practitioners, advocates, policymakers and philanthropy explore strategies that offer the most effective — and efficient — employment outcomes for families is an important focus of the Foundation's workforce-related grantmaking, which comes under its Pathways Out of Poverty program.
“Community colleges offer a critical pathway to post-high school education and meaningful, living-wage careers,” said Jack A. Litzenberg, interim program director. "These demonstrations are revealing the ways that schools can help students meet those goals."
The Opening Doors Demonstration was launched in 2003 by New York-based MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, social policy research organization.
The five-year demonstration has been testing ways for helping non-traditional community college students — at-risk youth, low-wage working parents and unemployed individuals — earn an education beyond high school. Those strategies are:
- access to financial resources — including performance-based scholarships — that help students meet their families’ living expenses;
- targeted support services, such as intensive counseling and tutoring; and
- curriculum- and instruction-based reforms that help students become — and remain — engaged in their college education.
Those reforms include the creation of learning communities, in which small groups of students take a number of classes together during their first semester at school and also have access to a range of supportive services. The resulting network of relationships can help participants — many of whom are the first in their families to attend college — build and maintain confidence about succeeding on a college campus.
The six schools that have participated in Opening Doors are Chaffey College (California), Delgado Community College and Louisiana Technical College (both Louisiana), Kingsborough Community College (New York), and Lorain County and Owens community colleges (both Ohio).
Mott support for the demonstration has totaled $801,000 since 2003.
Kingsborough already had implemented learning-community programs in 1995 to support students for whom English is a second language. Opening Doors, Kingsborough President Regina Peruggi says, has allowed the school to take the program to new audiences, as well as new heights.
“The demonstration helped us reach students who have a range of barriers — academic, economic and personal — that might otherwise lead them to struggle in school and perhaps drop out altogether,” she said. “The approach is having a positive impact on students and, ultimately, I believe, their families and communities.”
Indeed, MDRC’s ongoing evaluation of Opening Doors has revealed some promising results. For example, students participating in the learning communities report feeling more integrated and engaged at school, rate their college experience more highly, and perform better academically than their non-participating counterparts. And low-income students who receive academic performance scholarships maintain higher grades and earn more course credits than those who receive no supplemental financial aid.
The demonstration’s scientific design has included the random assignment of more than 6,000 students to participant and control groups. Opening Doors was among the first demonstrations to use this rigorous approach in examining the role of community colleges in workforce development, according to Robert Ivry, senior vice president for development and external affairs at MDRC.
The emerging findings, he says, are sparking new efforts to “flesh out these interventions at an even deeper level and see how they can be replicated, implemented and expanded at other colleges around the country.”
“Ultimately, the lessons of Opening Doors will shape programs and policies that help college students succeed on campus, in the workplace and in their communities.”
Final reports on the schools’ findings are expected in early 2009.
Helping students, particularly those who might otherwise struggle academically, succeed in college-level work is also the focus of the Breaking Through Demonstration.
This multiyear, national demonstration was launched in 2005 by the Boston-based Jobs For the Future (JFF) and the National Council for Workforce Education (NCWE), an affiliate of the American Association of Community Colleges headquartered in Washington, D.C. The focus of Breaking Through is on helping adults whose math and reading skills are below the 8th-grade level prepare for, and succeed, in college-level professional and technical programs.
Specifically, the demonstration seeks to:
- connect isolated programs within colleges, as well as between colleges and community-based organizations, to create multiple pathways for students to earn a degree or occupational certificate;
- find ways to help students complete programs more quickly;
- provide support services to help students with barriers stay in school and succeed; and
- work with employers to create incentives — jobs, credentials, etc. — for students to improve their skills.
Thirty-one schools — including MCC in Flint — in 18 states are participating in the demonstration. MCC is also leading the Michigan Breaking Through initiative, started in 2007, which seeks to share the model with other colleges in the state.
The Mott Foundation, through its Pathways Out of Poverty program, has supported the national demonstration with more than $4 million in grants since 2004 to JFF. Through its Flint Area program, the Foundation helped launch Michigan Breaking Through with a two-year, $348,866 grant to MCC in 2007.
Recent national findings from Breaking Through reveal a number of promising strategies. For example, the Community College of Denver launched a program in 2005 to help newly-admitted and struggling students quickly build their limited math and English skills. More than 90 percent of the participants have completed their mid-level English courses, compared with 63 percent of non-participants.
Meanwhile, a “fast track” job-training program implemented at Southeast Arkansas Community College in 2005 is helping students with multiple barriers embark on careers as licensed practical nurses (LPNs). Participants strengthen their English, reading and math skills in accelerated classes whose content reflects their future career choice.
The emerging results show 96 percent of program participants successfully completing their core academic and LPN course work, compared with 55 percent of non-program students. Furthermore, 100 percent of students who participated in the program’s first year passed the state licensing test for nurses, compared with 90 percent of their non-Breaking Through peers.
Marlene Seltzer, president and CEO at JFF, says such findings reflect the importance of finding new ways to help people succeed in college and the labor market.
“Mining and cultivating the human capital that exists in all communities is more than an issue of equity,” she said. “It’s a matter of economic competitiveness for the country.”
Three new demonstrations, launched this year by JFF and NCWE, will build on the lessons of Breaking Through. Mott made grants totaling $573,000 for the three.
The Creating Career Paths for the Low-Skilled in High Poverty Areas demonstration will help community colleges throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley — a four-county area that forms the southern tip of Texas — create educational and employment pathways for local residents.
The region is home to approximately one million people, one-third of whom live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data.
The demonstration will use strategies from the national Breaking Through initiative to design and launch new career pathway curriculums at South Texas College, located in McAllen. Those curriculums will engage area employers and workforce-development providers in offering students the education, services and resources needed to succeed in specific industries.
A second demonstration — Scaling Up Career Paths for the Low-Skilled at Community Colleges — will help colleges participating in the national Breaking Through initiative embed their strategies as standard practice on their campuses. Evaluating the impacts of those expanded programs also will be a key focus.
The third demonstration will build on the Michigan Breaking Through initiative by growing educational and career opportunities for low-skilled workers in the state.
The Creating Career Paths for the Low-Skilled in Michigan Colleges demonstration will engage six community colleges in the region, including MCC, in the national learning network of schools participating in Breaking Through. It also will create a statewide learning network, offering participating colleges the opportunity to share emerging strategies, insights and experiences across Michigan.
Robert Matthews, director of workforce development at MCC, says these demonstrations will expand life and learning opportunities for many families. To date, the Michigan initiative has helped 55 students at MCC pursue studies in four career areas: health care, manufacturing, human services and business management. The college plans to expand the Breaking Through approach to other curriculums.
“Education is about helping people succeed in school and life," Matthews said. "These demonstrations offer us the tools to help every student move forward, regardless of the challenges they face.”
Courses to Employment
Linking students with resources on and, just as importantly, off campus to help them prepare for promising careers in targeted industries is the goal of the national Courses to Employment Demonstration. It was launched in 2008 — with the help of a one-year, $1.2-million grant from Mott — by the Workforce Strategies Initiative (WSI) at the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute.
Specifically, the three-year demonstration is exploring how partnerships between community-based organizations and community colleges can help low-income, low-skilled individuals achieve a college degree and obtain work in a specific job sector.
The demonstration is being conducted at colleges in six communities: the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area in Texas; Chicago; Flint; Los Angeles; Seattle; and the northern Virginia region of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties.
By working together, community colleges and local service agencies can have a positive impact on the success of at-risk students, says Maureen Conway, deputy director of the Economic Opportunities Program at Aspen.
For example, nonprofit and human service organizations can help students address their special needs and challenges, such as access to quality, affordable day care; financial assistance with obtaining textbooks; and counseling on personal and life issues. And the schools — in addition to providing education and skill development opportunities — can help identify and connect students with those community supports.
An awareness of local trends in business and industry also can help community colleges and service agencies work with employers to create educational curriculums, job-training programs and supportive services that reflect the needed skills and experiences. The result, Conway says, is that students are effectively prepared for jobs that offer meaningful career potential.
“Courses to Employment will illuminate how college and nonprofit partnerships can best take advantage of the opportunities presented by local industries,” she said. “And it will ultimately teach us how to build more effective partnerships, yielding lessons for communities across the country.”
Shoreline Community College (SCC) in Seattle is among the schools participating in the Courses to Employment Demonstration.
For several years, the college has helped workers embark on career ladders as automotive technicians. Now, through a partnership with the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County, SCC is helping non-traditional and struggling students move up those ladders through its Automobile Career Pathways Project.
The project, launched under the Courses to Employment demonstration, seeks to help employed graduates of SCC’s automotive technician programs explore and follow through on career advancement opportunities, and overcome barriers to further education and skills training.
Berta Lloyd, dean of Workforce Education at SCC, says working with the council — which leads the area’s publicly funded workforce development programs — is vital to the project’s success.
“Both institutions are effectively plugged into the needs and interests of local families and employers,” she said. “Courses to Employment provides us the chance to work even more closely in creating the education and job-training opportunities that will help business and the community move forward.”
Amy Linder can attest to the importance of the community college pathway. In June 2008, with the help of the Michigan Breaking Through demonstration, she completed the child development program at Mott Community College. She then passed a test for National Child Development Associate certification, making her eligible for an advanced position and salary increase with her employer, a local school district.
That personal and economic progress confirms for Linder that her career is right on track.
“Even when I was 9 years old and babysitting, I looked forward to going to work,” she said. “With the help of Breaking Through, I’ve opened new doors in a job that I love.”