As the country divides more fervently across partisan lines, skepticism about the benefits of college is growing among some segments.
As a result, colleges, particularly those in the two-year sector, are feeling the pressure to prove that their institutions can deliver better work-force outcomes.
In recent weeks, surveys have shown that skepticism about the value of college is high not only with Republican voters but also among white working-class voters from all political affiliations. For instance, a poll commissioned by a Democratic political action committee found that 83 percent of white working-class voters said a college degree was “no longer any guarantee of success in America.”
The survey of white working-class voters also found strong support for job-training programs, just like the sort that community colleges offer.
Research shows that jobs in the new economy tend to go to people with at least some college education or an associate’s degree, instead of to workers who hold just high school diplomas. And that’s why some critics feel community colleges should be working harder to advertise and market the career and technical programs they offer.
Wisconsin, for instance, has a broad public education system, between the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Technical College systems. But for decades, residents could graduate from high school, go directly into the work force and have a family-sustaining career, said Morna Foy, president of the technical system.
But that has changed dramatically, she said.
“We’ve done a lot and our employers in the state have done a lot to change that narrative,” Foy said. “Maybe there are some people who don’t like that reality, but we don’t talk about it that much anymore as a reality.”
One way the technical college system works to eliminate the disconnect some people may have between college and the work force is by publishing reports that make the connection clear to the public, in the form of how much their graduates make at least six months after graduation.
Between 86 percent and 98 percent of graduates get a job in their field depending on the academic program, Foy said, and the system makes sure to market and promote that information for the public and for policy makers.
Industries like manufacturing didn’t completely go away, Foy said, but instead transformed into advanced manufacturing, where unskilled workers previously would operate an assembly line, but now they’re using robotics and smart technology.
Today there are about 30 million “good” jobs available for people who don’t have a bachelor’s degree and where workers can earn on average about $55,000 a year, according to a recently released report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
Some community and technical colleges, however, are focusing on building work-force partnerships and confronting the narrative that their programs don’t lead to job opportunities.
“When we talk about college or with people outside of higher education, they think of residential liberal arts colleges or research universities -- they don’t think of a two-year degree or a one-year certificate,” said Anne Kress, president of Monroe Community College in the State University of New York system. “We work closely with employers and we know they’re looking for a fully trained employee who can walk in on day one and start work, because they don’t have the capacity to do a lot of professional development.”
Kress said the college has been intentional in how it works with community-based organizations to raise awareness about what the college can provide.
“If we sit here and wait for them to come to us and find what we offer, it’s not going to happen,” she said.
In Wisconsin, administrators in the technical college system spend time educating people on the value of a technical credential, Foy said.
“There’s a pretty good understanding in this state that you can improve your economic condition by going to a technical college,” she said, adding that they don’t limit outreach on that value to associate degrees, also promoting stackable credentials, short-term programs and apprenticeships that appeal to older students who still want to work and attend classes part-time.
But Foy said people generally are aware of the work-force programs the colleges have to offer.
“There’s always going to be someone who says, ‘Why should I go back to college to get a job I used to have,’ and it can be a lack of finances, a lack of awareness of how accessible it can be to get the credential that has value,” she said, adding that investing two or more years as an adult student can seem daunting. “You have to get them over that hump of thinking, ‘I’ve been out of school so long I don’t remember any math I took in high school,’ or thinking everyone will be younger than them, or they don’t know how to use a smartphone or they don’t have a smartphone. Those are real-life barriers.”
Comments from people questioning the need for college aren’t uncommon in Tennessee. But that state has found some success in creating a college-going culture.
“That’s not accidental,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “Tennessee faces a situation, not unlike virtually every Southern state and Appalachian state, and that is connecting our residents to an understanding of all the college has to offer.”
While traveling across the state to promote the much-heralded Tennessee Promise program, Krause said a significant concern he heard from parents was that their children would go to college and never return home. So state officials turned to data that could be translated into “kitchen table conversations” and presented them to families.
“The single most powerful piece of data is what happens in real time to students who didn’t go to college in Tennessee,” he said. “If you don’t go to college in Tennessee right now, you’re making $9,000 and have an 84 percent chance of earning minimum wage. That’s not a common piece of data people share publicly, and I don’t think it’s somewhere higher education starts, but for us it’s been pivotal to tell and share with parents because no parent hears that and thinks they want their child to just make $9,000.”
Seventy-five percent of “good jobs” in the 1980s required less than a bachelor’s degree, but that number has decreased to 55 percent today, said Anthony Carnevale, a research professor and director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
“You can’t move forward by looking in the rearview mirror,” he said. “There is a lower quantity of those jobs … there is still a certain number who can make it without postsecondary education, but they do need postsecondary education.”
The current political climate seems focused mostly on white men, but working-class black and Latino men have been just as affected by the loss of jobs that could be filled by high school graduates alone, Carnevale said.
“We lost a ton of them in manufacturing, construction, farming, fishing, forestry … since the 1980s, but there has been growth in these jobs in the skilled-service sector, computers and health care,” Carnevale said, adding that women have done well in those latter professions.
Some educators, particularly at community colleges, have argued that Pell Grant funding for short-term programs that lead to a technical certificate would help more working-class people find new or better employment.
“We know we can offer short-term programs to connect our students to employment, but those very same students can’t go to college without financial aid,” Kress said.
Foy said colleges could do a better job of marketing their work-force programs.
“Higher education needs to do a better job of making the case for why it’s important,” she said. “We have to tell people and be honest about job prospects, the pay, the likelihood of placement, and it’s not enough to say ‘we’re colleges and universities so you should want to come to us.’”
Foy said she’s noticed some regional universities have started moving in this direction by the promotion of their graduates’ outcomes, similar to the way the Wisconsin technical system does.
“Even justifying why someone should come to university is a new way to think, especially for four-year schools,” she said. “But for transfer-based community colleges -- and we already do -- we have to market ourselves as having value.”