It's no secret that the community college sector and the completion agenda in particular, derived in large part from the American Graduation Initiative (AGI), have gotten a lot of attention recently. It's inarguable that we need an educated citizenry and that community colleges have a significant role to play in educating our workforce. Full federal funding didn’t follow the ideas in AGI, but the basic premise of certificate and degree completion as a primary measure of student success has gained ground among our federal and state leaders, and among private foundations. The goal of performance based accountability measures is laudable, as is identifying appropriate metrics to benchmark both institutional effectiveness and student success.
There are, though, a few caveats to consider seriously. There is an assumption that community colleges can be more efficient in these austere times and, at the same time, provide the growing number of services our students deserve, and that we can increase student success rates without compromising open access. Further, a narrow definition of student success as degree or certificate completion discounts the myriad of reasons beyond a goal of graduation that students attend community colleges.
The American Association of Community Colleges' Voluntary Framework of Accountability defines multiple measures and practices that lead to student success. Other organizations have sought to define student success through a more limited and prescribed lens. For instance, Complete College America (CCA) is benchmarking awards granted as a primary metric for community college students. However, when considering certificate awards they have chosen to count only those certificates of 30 hours or more. Futureworks, commissioned by CCA to produce "Certificates Count: An Analysis of Sub-baccalaureate Certificates," recommends that "short-term programs that lack significant labor-market payoffs should be discouraged" based on their analysis of available data. The organization carries this too far, however, in that the core metrics of CCA exclude the short-term certificates (less than 30 hours) that in many cases meet academic standards and local labor market needs very effectively.
It is this benchmarking of 30-hour certificate awards and the besmirching the lesser credit hour certificates or courses that meet local or regional needs that concerns me. If state leaders and foundations are influenced by reports such as the one produced by Futureworks, and they evaluate our performance on these narrowly defined benchmarks, I fear that our local constituents and economies will not be well-served, and our students may be denied a viable educational starting point. In many cases short-term certificates provide access to job credentials that lead to a sustainable wage, with a curriculum agreed upon by faculty and business leaders. We would be doing our students a disservice by needlessly raising the floor for credentials.
In Connecticut, the fastest growing occupations are middle-skilled jobs. For many such jobs, a short-term certificate is the credential of choice by the employer. At my college, short-term certificates account for 60 percent of students enrolled in certificate programs, and 10 percent of all awards. For example, we offer short-term certificates in computer aided drafting of 15 credits in lean manufacturing of 6 credits and a 600-hour precision machining program in which a student can earn 12 credit hours towards a credit certificate or degree. These certificates provide students with access to a robust job market in manufacturing, and a sustainable wage. Short-term certificates for medical insurance specialists (22 credits) and paralegals (29 credits) do the same in their fields. Students who respond to program graduate surveys report being employed in their field, including 75 percent for recent grads of our precision-machining program, and 90 percent for a recent class of students earning paralegal certificates.
I think we can agree with Futureworks that the longer-term certificate options designed by faculty and advisory boards to meet certain employment needs may indeed provide a higher wage for workers, but the corollary isn’t that short-term certificates don't accomplish a similar goal or that they shouldn’t be counted and benchmarked; they should be embraced for the advantages they provide our students and our communities. Aren’t our program advisory committee members and our local employers the most knowledgeable in helping our colleges determine the types of programs we offer? According to the CEO of Whitcraft LLC, “We are here [in Connecticut] because of the highly skilled aerospace manufacturing workforce in the region." Or the president of Highland Manufacturing, who believes "MCC has played a vital role in the development of new and creative talent for our company."
Clearly, community colleges need to form partnerships with local and regional economic development agencies to ensure we have the programs, funding, space and equipment that produce students who have the skills and intellectual acumen -- forget whether that’s a degree or certificate for a moment -- that are needed to keep this fragile economy going, to ensure that families have sustainable incomes, and that education doesn’t become victim to thoughts of discretionary spending.
Frankly, no matter what the assessment of the aggregate national data, I’m going with whatever is most necessary to support my local community, and my programs will be implemented with academic integrity and rigor whether it’s one course, a certificate of any length, or an associate degree.