Community colleges

Achieving the Dream colleges find graduates report higher well-being

A new survey shows graduates from Achieving the Dream colleges report higher percentages of financial and community well-being compared to other community college alumni.

Study finds poor economic results for students who enroll in certificate programs at for-profit institutions

New analysis says that students in certificate programs gain more economically from attending public institutions -- or no institution at all -- than for-profits.

Trump used wrong word when he talked about 'vocational' education, but he made a valid point (opinion)

By now, most Americans are used to President Trump using words that, if not inappropriate, are quite wrong. It’s clear he’s a far cry from his idol, the great communicator, with speeches that are varyingly at a fourth-grade vocabulary level or read off the teleprompter at a protracted pace.

So when the id of forgotten America says he wants community colleges to be more “vocational,” he’s using the wrong word. But he does have a point.

“Vocational” is the wrong word because most people interpret vocational education as training for a building or industrial trade involving working with one’s hands. And while these jobs are critical and admirable, there are two problems.

First, while President Trump might want millions of displaced workers trained in building trades -- perhaps to help build hotels and golf courses, or maybe gaudy monuments to our 45th president -- labor economists don’t. While there are shortages in certain trades, none are projected to be among the fastest-growing job categories in the next decade; the 21st-century economy won’t be built on the backs of welders and electricians.

The second reason, of course, is that while policy makers -- including Trump, who included a love song to welders in his first State of the Union address last month -- love to talk about training welders and electricians, talking about “vocational” training as the alternative to college only serves to reify and deify college in the minds of America’s successful and aspiring families.

Few parents who attended college and work in white-collar jobs are excited about sending their offspring down an educational path that leads to manual labor. The same is true of parents who haven’t achieved the American dream but want it for their children; choosing between a profession and a vocation for their children is no choice at all. All of which serves to put college on an even higher pedestal.

As usual, Trump’s choice of words undermines his objective. His administration believes we urgently need a multitude of pathways to good jobs, not a single four-year pathway. And if faster and cheaper alternatives to college are essential for Generation Z to avoid the same crises of debt and underemployment that befell their millennial brethren, it turns out they’re just as important to many older Trump voters.


In her superb 2017 book, Janesville, Washington Post staff writer Amy Goldstein documents the aftermath of the 2008 closing of the GM plant in Janesville, Wis. The plant had been in town since World War I, and with the network of suppliers and businesses that served GM and its workers, the closing was an economic catastrophe for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown.

For me, the most stunning scenes involved displaced workers funneled by the local work-force board to Blackhawk Technical College, Janesville’s community college, and the universal expectation that workers requiring retraining had to return to a classroom. Blackhawk does its best to accommodate the flood of newly unemployed adult learners, but it’s not a good fit for most: “As he enters his first class this morning -- psychology -- Mike is worried. Does he really know how to study? Can he write a research paper? Will he be able to use Word on a computer?”

According to Goldstein, “of the laid-off workers who arrived at the college in the fall of 2008 … nearly half left without finishing what they’d begun.” The completion rate was lower -- approximately one-third -- for those who enrolled in associate-degree programs.

Although Blackhawk tries “like hell,” it shouldn’t be a surprise that men and women who worked for decades on a GM assembly line aren’t thrilled at the prospect of sitting in a psychology class. It’s hard enough to educate adults in a college environment. Students need to be motivated to return to campus. But Janesville’s displaced workers were more disgruntled than motivated. Most had lost confidence in their economic future and their own capabilities. Then they’re told by the work-force board that the only pathway requires returning to an environment they last experienced as a teenager -- an environment they perceive as infantilizing. It’s a recipe for dropouts.

According to Opportunity@Work, there are at least 10 million American workers who need reskilling right now. Based on exit polls from the 2016 election, most who voted pulled the lever for Donald Trump. So although Trump says “vocational,” it’s entirely valid to express frustration at the classroom monoculture of our postsecondary system.

All students care about getting good jobs -- displaced workers doubly so. (In Janesville, one student drops as soon as his instructor levels with him that there actually aren’t many jobs for graduates of his program.) It’s generally the case that the more you’re in a classroom, the further you are from employers and jobs. The inverse is equally true: the further you are from the classroom, the closer you are to employers.

What kinds of postsecondary programs are far from the traditional classroom? Trump’s vocational programs, for sure. But also a wide range of faster, cheaper pathways to good digital jobs that run in workplace-like environments. Galvanize programs run in co-working spaces, alongside hundreds of hiring companies. Revature students work business hours and wear business attire. (Note: both Galvanize and Revature are University Ventures portfolio companies.) Techtonic Academy students work on real client projects and begin billing time as early as early as week five or six. While these examples are in software development, we are actively backing similar models across a wide range of industries and job functions -- anywhere the skills gap can be remedied through last-mile training.

It’s always easier to sit students in a classroom and talk at them. My mother taught at a community college for over 30 years, and -- ask anyone -- she loves to talk. But adult learners -- particularly displaced workers -- are almost always better served in workplace settings. Project-based learning is good. Real projects from real clients who’ll ultimately hire students (or who may have already done so, as with apprenticeship programs) are even better.

I’m not saying there's no role for classrooms; many concepts are best conveyed and mastered in a classroom environment, particularly classrooms set up for active learning. But we’re unlikely to engage those in greatest need of reskilling if classrooms are the sole, or even initial, modality. Of course, the other problem with classrooms is the bureaucratic baggage built up over decades. The forms, financing, offices. Tell one of the Janesville protagonists that he needs to visit the bursar's office, and he’d either roll his eyes or run away screaming. The apparatus surrounding much college-based retraining could not be less conducive to those who need it most.

Employers aren’t going to do the work to establish these workplace settings. Few colleges and universities want to. But higher education has to do the work to create more workplace-like learning environments. Because that’s what millions of displaced workers need today, and what tens of millions more will need tomorrow as technological change accelerates.

The closure of Janesville’s GM plan was such a sudden, singular event that the story could be told in concise form by a newspaper reporter. But gradually, the same story has happened across many parts of America you probably don’t spend much time in. Education can't stop industries and companies from losing their competitive edge and going out of business. But it’s our responsibility to help the people affected. Telling every single one of them that their only pathway runs through a college classroom is unimaginative, irresponsible and borderline sadistic. It's as though half the country is starving, and our national policy is that they need to sit in a classroom and learn etiquette before we allow them to eat.

So this is what I think Trump means when he says “vocational.” Then again, maybe he knows better. It could be the case that, in addition to the other social tensions he's stoked for political purposes, he’s just trying to rile up welders and electricians.

Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures and author of the upcoming A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College.

Image Source: 
Getty Images
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Accreditors tighten scrutiny of low graduation rates

Regional accreditors weigh in on graduation rates with an analysis of colleges with low rates, but the agencies argue against using a "bright-line" approach.

Colleges and states scramble to comply with instructor credential rules for dual-credit courses

A recent accreditation policy has many colleges -- particularly in rural areas -- struggling to find qualified instructors to teach popular dual-credit courses for high school students.

Tennessee colleges face achievement gaps and decreasing adult student enrollment

Despite tackling college access head-on, challenges remain in Tennessee as the state grapples with decreasing adult student enrollment and an achievement gap for African-American students.

State mergers of community colleges are spreading, but can present challenges

Amid declining budgets and enrollments, Connecticut is the latest state to attempt a merger involving two-year colleges, with a proposal to consolidate its 12 community colleges.

College leaders can play a big role in helping more transfer students get to graduation (essay)

21st-Century Community Colleges

When students can transfer smoothly from community colleges to four-year institutions, students, families and taxpayers realize the benefits of incredible cost savings as well as the economic and social returns that come from earning a bachelor’s degree.

But often it is not smooth. Despite high levels of baccalaureate aspiration among community college students, transfer and baccalaureate completion rates remain critically low. Research shows that, among a nationally representative sample of students who enrolled in a two-year institution with the goal of attaining a bachelor’s degree, only 23 percent succeeded within eight years. And outcomes are worse for low-income students and underrepresented minority students (black, Latino and American Indian) -- populations that begin their education in community colleges at disproportionately high rates.

The good news is that we know we can do better. During the 2015-16 academic year, researchers from the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College visited six high-performing transfer partnerships -- including six two-year and eight four-year schools -- to understand how higher education can better serve undergraduate transfer students. Among these highly successful community college-university transfer partnerships, we found several common threads. Among the most important: presidents dedicated to aligning internal leadership, priorities and resources, as well as external partnerships, to improve transfer outcomes.

Internally, highly effective community college presidents set the tone on their campuses that what counts is not only associate degree completion and transfer, but baccalaureate completion. That means repeatedly speaking about the importance of transfer, often while referencing data about transfer and bachelor’s degree attainment in conversations with faculty members, staff, the cabinet and the board. It also means calling attention to the need for equitable baccalaureate attainment outcomes for all students to assure that low-income and underrepresented minority students are being well served. In the end, the presidential commitment is reflected in resource allocation: Do staff receive release time to build clear program maps? How much funding is dedicated to transfer advising?

At the four-year level, effective presidents have engaged in similar efforts but often must start by raising awareness about the importance of transfer students. Nationally, nearly half of all undergraduates who complete a four-year degree enrolled at a two-year college at some point before graduating. But on individual campuses, many faculty and staff are not aware of the prevalence of transfer students. Recognizing this, presidents (and other senior leaders) at four-year colleges and universities that have achieved strong outcomes often start by presenting data on the significant numbers of college transfer students at their institutions, disaggregated whenever possible, which creates awareness and urgency around the great responsibility they share with community colleges for bachelor’s degree attainment among transfer students.

Highly effective presidents understand that it is not enough to concern themselves with only their institution’s half of the transfer journey; they must understand and take ownership of students’ success across the entire four-year experience. They know that community colleges and universities can best serve transfer students if they jointly own the entire transfer experience through to baccalaureate attainment. Furthermore, they understand that increasing transfer student outcomes on average is inadequate; they can only attain their institutional goals by making sure that transfer student outcomes become equitable across the student population.

In the most successful cases, presidents at both two- and four-year colleges build, maintain and highlight strong relationships with the presidents at partner institutions. Through regularly scheduled meetings between presidents and provosts, announcements regarding the progress of their partnerships, and joint public appearances regarding the importance of college completion, these efforts send a signal to both campuses -- and the surrounding community -- that both institutions are dedicated to working together to achieve student success.

Whenever we present to presidents and senior leaders The Transfer Playbook, a guide that distills what we learned about highly effective transfer practices through our college visits, their next question is always how to get started. Here’s an idea: get leaders from both two- and four-year partners together to discuss data and other information about the transfer student experience in its entirety, beyond each institution’s part of the “two-plus-two” arrangement. Guiding questions for this review might include:

  • How many total credit hours do transfer students accumulate on their journey to the baccalaureate?
  • How long does it take students to complete the bachelor’s degree?
  • What is the transfer rate between the partner institutions, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and Pell status? How do the demographics of the transfer student population compare to the entering cohorts at both institutions?
  • What is the baccalaureate completion rate of transfer students, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and Pell status?
  • How much remaining eligibility do Pell students typically have when they enter the four-year college? How often do they exhaust that eligibility before completing the bachelor’s degree?
  • Are students who complete the associate degree prior to transfer earning bachelor’s degrees at higher levels than those who don’t? Does that vary by major?
  • Through transfer-student focus groups, what do students have to say about their pathway to the baccalaureate and how difficult or seamless it was for them to navigate across both institutions?

A jointly appointed cross-institutional working group can review transfer student data, examine institutional practices and policies, and identify areas where there are strengths, weaknesses and gaps within and between institutions. Reporting to the presidents with recommendations for improving the transfer student experience and strengthening the relationships between institutions allows the colleges to create a joint agenda for improving transfer success.

It’s unsurprising that leaders at many two- and four-year colleges have paid less attention to transfer student bachelor’s degree attainment than graduation rates of students who start at their colleges. After all, federal data reporting requirements and state accountability systems typically do not track baccalaureate success rates for transfer students. But making concerted efforts to improve transfer students’ baccalaureate completion rates is essential if our nation is to deliver the bachelor’s degrees that can fuel our economy. Given the rising number of traditionally underrepresented students in the United States, the majority of whom start at a community college, the talent our nation needs cannot be fully developed without better transfer outcomes. Moreover, given the cost savings associated with successful transfer, improving two- to four-year transfer represents one of the most promising scalable strategies for improving baccalaureate attainment rates nationwide, especially in an era of declining public resources.

It is time when more community colleges and four-year institutions take joint responsibility for the bachelor’s degree attainment of community college transfers. For that to happen, community college and university presidents must lead the way.

Robert Templin is president emeritus of Northern Virginia Community College, senior fellow at the Aspen Institute and professor at North Carolina State University. K. C. Deane is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education and a fellow at Public Agenda.

Image Source: 
Image Caption: 
A transfer fair at Northern Virginia Community College
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Nonacademic barriers highlight challenges facing rural colleges 

Rural community colleges grapple with nonacademic barriers that hinder their students from staying and completing.

Study: Many community college students struggle with access to food

New study finds 13 percent of community college students lack the food and nutrition they need.


Subscribe to RSS - Community colleges
Back to Top