An Opening for Community Colleges

Two-year institutions gear up to tap into federal stimulus legislation's innovative mechanism for distributing Workforce Investment Act funds, which allows for contracts for entire courses.
April 3, 2009

Eighteen months ago, Ohio's Owens Community College set up shop in the Source, the local county's one-stop employment center in downtown Toledo. This way, when the center's job counselors believed that individual unemployed or dislocated workers should use their federal Workforce Investment Act money for skills training or other services best offered by the community college, Owens was in a position to deliver it right on the spot. In the year and a half since the change, the two-year institution has educated 1,000 students at the Source, 600 of whom were brand new to Owens, says Paul Unger, the college's executive vice president and provost.

The steady stream of students that Owens is educating through the Workforce Investment Act could accelerate into a torrent for it and other community colleges, thanks to the federal stimulus package that is just beginning to course its way through the nation's economy. That is partially because the new American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, as the stimulus law is known, will nearly double the amount of federal job training money available through the Department of Labor over the next two years.

But it is also because the law has been written in a way that allows and actively encourages the local boards that distribute Workforce Investment Act funds -- which historically are limited to doling out training vouchers to individual students -- to enter instead into contracts with community colleges and other eligible providers to provide short-term courses to large numbers of would-be workers.

The changes are designed, in the near term, to help get the stimulus money out faster and more efficiently, but community college leaders are also hopeful that the revision could help test a new method of distributing money under the Workforce Investment Act, which is up for renewal in the coming months.

"There's obviously a lot of opportunity [through the stimulus] for our institutions to play an even bigger role than they have in helping get the country back to work," says David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. "Not only are they roughly equaling or even exceeding the amount of money being spent each year, but there's also a lot of talk about changing the ways the WIA system has been operating, and exhorting creative, fresh thinking and approaches."

Stimulation for 2-Year Colleges

Most of the focus on the stimulus law in higher education has been either on the state stabilization fund, which is designed to help states ward off cuts to their schools and colleges, or on the billions of dollars in additional funds for biomedical, energy and other kinds of research and development. Community colleges may benefit from the stabilization funds, in the states where their budgets have been or were destined to be cut and the stimulus money restores the money to make up for those reductions. But on balance, the $3.95 billion in additional money the measure would direct toward job training may be most important for two-year institutions.

Specifically, the law provides $1.25 billion to states to train workers affected by the economic downturn, $1.2 billion for youth training, $500 million for adult workforce training, $750 million to train and place workers in high-demand fields such as energy efficiency and health care, and $250 million for other purposes.

All of those pots of money hold at least some promise for community colleges -- even those, such as the youth funds, that might seem irrelevant. While Workforce Investment Act funds for youth training is typically limited to those 21 or under, the stimulus legislation extended the age limit to 24, purposely opening the door -- according to Congressional aides who advocated the change -- for two-year colleges to collaborate with community-based organizations and other groups on summer or year-round jobs programs with education components that might give participants a window into the possibility of higher education.

Most of the focus for community colleges, however, will understandably be on the nearly $3 billion the stimulus law contains to train and retrain adult workers. The way the Workforce Investment Act works, money for job training flows through local workforce investment boards that are made up of business, government and other leaders, and sometimes, but not always, educators. The boards operate "one-stop centers" (like the one in Toledo described above) to which unemployed workers or others seeking job retraining go for help. Officials at the one-stop centers advise individuals on their options for education or training, and the Workforce Investment Act funds flow with the individual to the training provider the worker chooses.

Community colleges receive about a third of all funds through the workforce law, which is widely seen as less than they ought to get. A 2006 study sponsored by the Lumina Foundation for Education and conducted by Institute for the Study of Family, Work, and Community found that some community colleges have very strong and productive relationships with their local workforce boards, and others less so, but that while "national data show that colleges as a group still underparticipate in WIA, participation rates appear to have increased in the seven years since WIA was first implemented."

Given the stimulus package's overall goal of saving or creating jobs, and fast, those who crafted its job training provisions focused intensely on coming up with the best ways of getting the money out the door quickly while, given accountability demands, still ensuring effectiveness. That was part of what inspired a group of members of Congress, including Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), to include language in the stimulus legislation that lets local workforce boards "award contracts to institutions of higher education, such as community colleges, or other eligible training providers, if the board determines it would facilitate the training of multiple individuals in high-demand occupations and if the contracts do not limit customer choice," as the Labor Department's guidance on the recovery act describes it.

The provision, the guidance states, "is intended to help increase education and training enrollments and capacity in a time when many states and educational institutions are experiencing budget shortfalls, by allowing [boards] to pay for the full cost of training at the beginning of the course. Direct contracts with institutions of higher education and eligible training providers also allow [boards] to quickly design training to fit the needs of the job
seekers and employers."

While the intention of the provision is primarily to bolster training, it will undoubtedly strengthen the hand of community colleges in the workforce system; the No. 1 recommendation of the aforementioned Lumina study was, "relax constraints on contract training."

"We're very excited about the opportunity," says Michael Bankey, vice president of workforce and community services at Owens. Because of its close relationship, physically and otherwise, with the Toledo one-stop center, the community college is already the center's biggest provider of training. But right now, Bankey notes, the center refers students one by one to its various programs -- between 10 and 20 a month in truck driving, for instance. But the ability to enter into group contracts with the one-stop center, in the way that Owens now does to create specialized programs for local businesses or other organizations, opens up lots of possibilities for customized setups that directly respond to local, regional or state needs, Bankey says.

He says Ohio officials have been talking, for instance, about a growing need for people trained to do MIG welding, a form of gas metal arc welding increasingly used in the automobile and other industries. Bankey says Owens might propose to the Source that the college create a short-term training course that combines learning the welding skills with the training in federal workplace safety rules that an employer might require of any welder it hires. A contract would allow the college to create the course upfront and make it available at the one-stop center to as many potential workers as the center's officials think they can refer.

Colleges like Owens, Bankey says, might also be in a position to add new programs for which they know there is state or other demand. "This could give us an option to add programs like wind or solar installation that before weren't able to be supported," assuming that the local workforce board agrees that the demand is there to enter into a contract for such a program.

Community college officials around the country are just beginning to think along these lines, says Leroy Stokes, vice president for corporate and continuing education at Guilford Technical Community College, in North Carolina. "We've just started getting information on what will be coming down the pipe for us," he says. "But this new contract approach should make it more possible for us and a lot of colleges like ours to do the kind of short-term training that our areas need."

Stokes says that Guilford, like Owens and presumably many a community college around the country, expects to be putting its best ideas for new or expanded programs in front of their local workforce boards and one-stop centers in the coming weeks.

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