Opinion | Education

Congress's $2 billion to community colleges worth it or not?

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Friday was "numbers Friday" at the Labor Department - the day when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its monthly jobs report. On the same first Friday in October 10 years ago, the unemployment rate clocked in at 9.8 percent and more than 15 million Americans were without jobs. Over the preceding year, more than 500,000 workers had filed a new unemployment insurance claim every week.    

The Great Recession was tough on many Americans, but among the hardest hit were workers with no college education. Their unemployment rate in October, 2009 was twice as high as those with a bachelor's degree, a trend that persisted throughout most of the recovery. In fact, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, more than 90 percent of the new jobs generated since the recession went to workers with some college education while workers with only a high school education lost ground. 

Recognizing that education would be critical for helping Americans get back on their feet, the Obama Administration put community colleges at the center of their economic recovery strategy. In 2009, the White House worked with Congress to pass the Trade Adjustment Act Community College Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program. 

The $2 billion investment had two goals: 1) to build the capacity of community colleges to serve adults, many of whom had never gone to college or were returning after a long time out of school, and 2) expand the evidence base around effective job training and re-employment approaches.

From 2010-2014, the Departments of Labor and Education awarded 256 grants, touching more than 700 community colleges across the country. The four-year grants funded strategies that researchers had identified as promising - like prior learning assessment that could help adults get credit for what they learned while working and complete their programs faster; open educational resources (OER) that could save students from having to buy expensive textbooks; enhanced advising and career navigation services that could help older students not familiar with college make good choices. 

The grants also funded colleges to pay independent evaluators to determine whether the new strategies actually helped students complete their programs and get a job.

Did any of it make a difference? We commissioned a team of researchers to dig into those independent evaluations to find out. Using a process called "meta-analysis", they analyzed data from studies that successfully compared what happened to students who participated in TAACCCT-funded projects with similar students who did not. They found a positive impact on program completion, credential attainment, and employment for the students in TAACCCT-funded projects.

The analysis provides the first hard evidence that, taken as a whole, the strategies funded through TAACCCT did help adults -  many unemployed and with no college experience - earn new credentials and move back into the labor market. Their findings align with a growing body of research showing that greater spending on community colleges improves student outcomes. 

Ten years later, our economy looks very different. The numbers in Friday's jobs report were mostly good: low unemployment, increasing rates of labor force participation, and even some modest wage growth. But beneath the surface, there are important similarities between today's labor market and the one that emerged during the Great Recession. 

Many Americans remain vulnerable to job loss, whether due to recession, international trade, or automation. And many of them will need to acquire new skills and credentials to stay in the labor market. Indeed, the ability to access, afford, and complete high quality education and training opportunities throughout adulthood will likely become an even starker dividing line between Americans in the future than it already is today. 

America's community colleges are a national infrastructure for lifelong learning that can support students of all ages. But despite compelling evidence of their critical role in connecting Americans to economic opportunity, funding for community colleges remains alarmingly low. 

According to a recent report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers, state financial support for public higher education in 2018 was still 13 percent below its pre-recession level, forcing institutions to rely more heavily on tuition to finance their operations. 

State and federal investments in workforce training similarly remain below pre-recession levels. Community colleges have been particularly hard hit by the lack of resources, even as states ask them to serve an increasingly diverse array of students and job seekers. 

We cannot wait for the next recession to invest in our community colleges. The TAACCCT program was a timely investment that helped Americans weather a terrible economic storm. It also helped community colleges adapt to a new normal - one in which adults will need access to high quality education throughout their lives, as well as a host of other supports to help them navigate a labor market that runs on skills and credentials. 

Now is the time to build on what we learned and ensure our colleges have the resources they need to serve their communities - in good times and in bad. 

Mary Alice McCarthy is the director of the Center on Education & Skills team at New America, a D.C.-based think tank. She is formerly from both the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Labor. 

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