WASHINGTON – A pair of education advocates urged President Obama to prioritize the distribution of funds from the recently created  Community College and Career Training Grant program to those institutions that radically remodel their certificate and degree programs to emphasize speedy graduation and job placement.
Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation for Education, and Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, made the pitch Friday during a discussion  moderated by The Washington Monthly to James Kvaal, who will take over as deputy under secretary of education next month . Many community colleges, they argued, cannot get displaced workers a credential and back into the workforce fast enough.
“Many of these programs, quite bluntly, simply take too long to finish – particularly for families already under financial pressure,” Merisotis said. “Time is a major factor for many of these individuals – adults and traditional-age students. It forces them back into, if they can find them, low-wage, low-skills jobs that simply intensify the need for more and often costly education down the road.”
While Merisotis and Jones did not set a time limit, they generally praised as models programs that take a year, maximum, to finish – quite a contrast from the two-year norm for many associate degrees – assuming students enroll full time. Though community colleges offer low-cost programs, they do not, Merisotis argued, offer students the “quicker-to-graduation curricula and job-placement” of the best for-profit institutions. But Merisotis does not think the answer to what he suggested was community colleges’ inefficiency is found in brand-new institutional design. If anything, the model Merisotis believes community colleges around the country should emulate is a rather old idea – that of a traditional vocational school.
In a handful of states – Ohio, New York, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin – there are technical institutions separate from community colleges. In Tennessee, for instance, 13 community colleges offer associate degree programs, whereas 27 “technical centers” offer only one-year certificate programs in high-demand fields. These institutions, like for-profit trade institutions, focus on getting students a credential and getting them out out in a short period of time.
“By having a calendar that’s every 72 days, students do not have a long period of time to say ‘Oh, maybe I won’t go back. Maybe I’ll take this semester off. Maybe I’ll take this term off,’ ” said Carol Puryear, director of the Tennessee Technology Center at Murfeesboro . “They’re expected to go those 72 days every term. They sign up and come back. We offer very specific programs.… We really limit that. You choose your program, and you choose if you want to be full-time or part-time.”
Jones applauded the limited-choice approach, arguing that it does not allow many opportunities for students to lose their way.
“I was an engineering student, and I don’t remember having a choice until I was a junior in college,” Jones said. “People say that people who were pre-med didn’t have a choice either. It was pretty much a lock-step curriculum. There’s nothing wrong with directed choice. … I call it kind of back to the future. They didn’t invent this yesterday; They’ve been doing this [in Tennessee] for 20 years. Some of the rest of us kind of discovered it – that they were on the right track for 20 years. Block scheduled, cohort-based, integrated – it’s highly effective.”
The completion rate at Murfeesboro is about 83 percent, and its job-placement rate is about 75 percent, Puryear noted. She noted that her students realize time is of the essence and are extra-dedicated to their work as a result. For example, she said she has a student now whose wife decided to work overtime after he was laid off so that he could go to a technical center to earn a truck-driving credential.
“He lives on $20 a week,” Puryear said. “That’s pretty hard for people to imagine unless you’re looking at this particular student. But for $20 a week, he pays for his gas, and that man eats more ramen noodles than I’ve ever seen. … But they make sacrifices because there’s an exact end in sight. They see it. They do not sign up for classes. They up for a program.”
Jones and Merisotis believe the government should encourage the development of short-term, quick-hit programs like this at community colleges around the country with the $2 billion Community College and Career Training Grant program, which passed as part of the health care/student loan reconciliation bill earlier this year.
“We’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars as a society in tax-payer dollars to ensure that banks and automobile manufacturers emerge from the recession on a sound footing,” Merisotis said. “From our vantage point, the unemployed now represent a major long-term challenge for the country, and we think it’s important for us to invest what would really only be a tiny fraction of the amounts we’ve already invested in those other industries in the future for workers who area the backbone of our economy.”
Additionally, Jones and Merisotis say that Congress should extend unemployment benefits so that anyone receiving them can attend college, as long as they are enrolled full-time in a one- or two-year degree program. Finally, they suggest that the government create a new program of “education stipends” to offset the tuition and living costs of going to college, essentially making the completion of a program the “job” of the recipient.
Acknowledging the death of the larger American Graduation Initiative , Kvaal said the administration was open to these ideas so that it could effectively make use of the $2 billion being appropriated to community colleges.
“It wasn’t everything we asked for, but we actually are quite pleased,” Kvaal said. “It’s important to realize that the money is coming sooner than the president proposed. Even though the dollar figure is not as large, it’s over four years instead of ten years. And $2 billion is a sum of money that can make some important investments in community colleges. … We think there’s a lot of potential for this funding to fund programs like the ones that have been described today. We think there’s a lot of merit in these ideas.”
Some in the audience questioned applying the quick-entry, quick-exit model of a technical institution to community colleges writ large, especially to liberal arts associate degree programs. Merisotis and Jones, however, defended their proposal.
“The model of higher education in our country is evolving,” Merisotis said. “The seat-time, credit hour approach … is probably going to continue to evolve. … If you move towards a more learning-focused system, it’s pretty clear that how much time you spend on doing that is going to be less and less important.”