Democrats in Congress are seeking to send billions of dollars in new funding to community colleges to support free two-year postsecondary education for students, but that could leave job-focused education behind in the process if policy makers aren’t careful, according to prominent community college and workforce education leaders.
Twenty college administrators, researchers and entrepreneurs said in a recent letter to leaders of the House and Senate education committees that they are concerned the “college promise” provisions under consideration by lawmakers leave out job-focused learners. As a result, the policies would only serve a fraction of the population looking to pursue higher education.
Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee have included a free community college program -- called America’s College Promise -- in their part of the Build Back Better Act currently being crafted in Congress as a budget reconciliation package. The overall legislation’s current form is heavily focused on traditional higher education, though $2 billion has been set aside for community college workforce development grants.
“What Americans need is education that prepares them to live successful, satisfying lives, finding jobs in their fields of study, earning family-sustaining wages and returning to college as needed to learn new skills and stay abreast of a changing economy,” the letter says. “Time is of the essence as the post-pandemic economy takes off. We urge you to act quickly, positioning all Americans to take advantage of the new opportunities it’s unleashing.”
Congress should be using current and additional federal funding to provide incentives to postsecondary providers to move toward a more employer- and employment-centric approach, said Ryan Craig, managing director of Achieve Partners and one of the people who signed the letter. That could include funding priorities focused on faster and cheaper pathways to good jobs, stackable credentials or work-integrated learning, for example.
“Most, if not all, of the incremental funding is directed not at the workforce side but rather the traditional academic side,” Craig said. “To that extent, we think it’s pushing community colleges in the wrong direction.”
These policies are especially necessary for the current labor market, where demand is high for skilled technical workers who need more education than high school but less than a bachelor’s degree, said Tamar Jacoby, president of Opportunity America and one of the signers.
“The economy is driving people toward that kind of fast, skills-focused course, but there’s no way to pay for it,” Jacoby said. “That’s what the group is asking be rectified. It should be rectified whether or not they pass a college promise provision, but it should certainly be rectified if they’re going to pass a college promise provision.”
The letter outlines three main elements of support from Congress that are needed for job-focused education: adequate funding for both job-focused and academic programs, funding for noncredit workforce programs, and financial aid for learners enrolled in shorter programs. Currently, many short-term, workforce-based community college programs aren’t eligible to receive Title IV financial aid.
The authors acknowledge that funding has to go only to high-quality programs, and they described benchmarks for policy makers to consider for both credit and noncredit programs, such as whether they culminate in credentials with value in the labor market, allow for stackable credentials, provide wraparound supports and offer work-based learning opportunities. But not every program will meet all of the criteria, the letter says, so the most important thing is aligning programs with local labor market needs.
Ensuring an equal distribution of community college funding between both credit and noncredit programs will help to appropriately address the experiences of adult learners -- particularly low-income adults of color -- who have often been left behind in the postsecondary education system, said Chauncy Lennon, vice president at the Lumina Foundation and one of the people who signed the letter.
“At Lumina, we’re excited about all of the conversations we’re seeing around investment, and we want to make sure that conversation covers the needs of all the different kinds of students who come to community colleges,” Lennon said.
Stakeholders are still supportive of Congress’s desire to put more resources into community colleges. But because the institutions are like Swiss Army knives -- they do many different things and educate many different types of people for many different purposes, said Jacoby -- the goal is to make sure those resources are supporting all facets of the institution.
“The point now is that if we’re going to set aside billions of dollars for people to go to community college, let’s not leave out this burning need,” Jacoby said. “These people are behind already. Let’s not put them further behind.”