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A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate last week would pump federal funding into community college work-based learning programs, helping to provide students with more opportunities to further their education and the support they need to be successful.

Senators Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, and Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, reintroduced the Assisting Community Colleges in Educating Skilled Students to Careers Act -- or ACCESS to Careers Act -- which would create a competitive grant program for community colleges and states to focus on boosting work-based learning opportunities.

Individual community colleges could receive grants of up to $1.5 million to carry out career training programs, while community college systems would be eligible for a maximum award of $5 million. States would receive grants of more than $2.5 million, but a maximum of $10 million over four years, to develop statewide policies related to work-based learning and provide subgrants to community colleges for those programs.

“It’s no secret that as our economy changes, so do the demands of our workforce,” Young said in a release. “As we recover from this pandemic, it is more important than ever to use new evidence-based innovations in postsecondary education to prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow.”

The introduction of the legislation aligns with a trend of lawmakers from both parties supporting opportunities for workers to gain access to education and training past high school that don’t require a four-year degree, said Katie Spiker, director of government affairs at the National Skills Coalition.

“That's really the kind of program that ACCESS would support, which is particularly important during the time of crisis that we're in and as we look to shape an inclusive economic recovery,” Spiker said.

Specifically, the legislation calls for partnerships between community colleges and in-demand industries to provide apprenticeship programs, work-based learning opportunities and paid internships. Institutions would also be able to use the grant funding to develop or expand stackable credential programs and dual or concurrent enrollment programs, as well as accelerated learning programs.

It would help to bridge the dual purposes that community colleges often serve in their localities -- according to Higher Learning Advocates executive director Julie Peller -- of offering both workforce training and postsecondary education.

“A learner often has to choose between a training program on the noncredit side or something on the credit side that might take longer,” Peller said. “The programs that this bill would support help bridge between that so learners don't need to make that choice.”

Outside of providing work-based learning opportunities, the bill emphasizes the need and mandates support for student services that help students find success in the programs it would create. At least a quarter of the funding that institutions receive would be required to be used for student support services, such as childcare, transportation, career counselors, mental health treatment or direct financial assistance.

This is especially important because students at community colleges often come from a variety of nontraditional backgrounds, whether they’re low income, first generation, adult learners or international students, and they require additional support services to ensure their success, said Michael Matthews, government relations manager at the Association for Career and Technical Education.

Additionally, the enduring effects of the pandemic on the workforce mean that community colleges may see an influx of adult learners into work-based training programs. Those who lost their jobs may choose to upskill or reskill to find employment, added Matthews.

“I think by allowing additional resources to go towards not only work-based learning models but also support services -- it'll be critical to the success of the programs and the students,” Matthews said.

Increased federal support would go a long way in helping to address many of the gaps that currently exist in career training at community colleges, said Matthews. Institutions are having to quickly adapt their programs to keep up with a changing economy and workforce demand. They often don’t have the capacity to enroll all the students who are interested in certain in-demand fields, like health care, information technology and transportation and logistics. And because career and technical education programs can be expensive for community colleges -- due to the need for specified equipment and instructors -- they’re often limited in the courses and programs they can provide.

But the ACCESS to Careers Act is only one part of the solution. Building more workforce training programs and helping students complete them will also require changes to federal aid -- such as the creation of short-term Pell Grants -- the elimination of structural barriers and the measurement of outcomes to ensure investments are made equitably.

“I don't think this bill in and of itself will solve the larger issue that Congress and the country has been trying to solve for the past four decades,” Matthews said. “It's one piece in a larger puzzle -- but a critical piece.”

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