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As lawmakers consider additional funding for community colleges, higher education leaders are asking them to look at making targeted investments in apprenticeship programs. At hearings Tuesday, Democrats and Republicans seemed united in wanting to see that happen.

The programs were a topic of discussion during two congressional hearings held Tuesday in the House Appropriations and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees about community college investment and the institutions’ roles in developing a postcoronavirus workforce.

President Biden is proposing $12 billion in funding for community colleges as part of his infrastructure plan, and the House committee will soon develop its appropriations bills for fiscal year 2022. Witnesses testified that at least part of that funding could be used to aid in the creation of more apprenticeship programs that support workforce development and better accommodate adult learners.

“We’ve got to provide, at each of our colleges, more opportunities for apprenticeships for these students,” Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, said at the House hearing.

In some states, apprenticeship programs are growing rapidly. Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said he was particularly proud of the work his home state’s community colleges have done so far with respect to apprenticeship programs.

Once the North Carolina Legislature transferred the state's apprenticeship program to the community college system in 2017, both the number of students and types of industries offering apprenticeships -- which have traditionally been primarily in the construction and manufacturing sectors -- have increased significantly, said Scott Ralls, president of Wake Technical Community College, at the Senate hearing.

“What’s so important about it is the opportunities it provides for students who may not have those opportunities otherwise to get experience and to get into a hiring scenario they would not be in,” Ralls added.

But many community colleges don’t have the experience necessary to build apprenticeship programs that lead not only to a job but also a degree, said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at the think tank New America. She noted that career advancement in many fields, like health care, requires academic credentials that can only come from higher education institutions. That’s where funding from the federal government could play a large role.

“I think targeted investments for colleges to build credit-bearing apprenticeship programs with industries that result in a degree would help move the field forward,” McCarthy said.

Investments in apprenticeship programs at community colleges are also important in helping colleges support adult learners and their needs as students, said William T. Brown, CEO of Gateway Community College in New Haven, Conn., in response to a question from Appropriations Committee chair Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut.

“Programs like apprenticeships really help our students to both work and learn at the same time,” Brown said.

And apprenticeships can be a critical part of helping Americans get back to work following the pandemic while also bringing workers to high-demand fields, testified Deneice Thomas, deputy commissioner of workforce learning and development at the Tennessee Department of Labor.

“They not only give individuals an opportunity to really step forward and do work that is vital to the recovery of our country from the pandemic but also in a meaningful career that will give them the in-demand experience and high wages that can really change the trajectory of an individual’s career,” Thomas said.

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