Working Learners Need Innovative Education Models

Louis Soares offers five recommendations for helping community colleges innovate and meet working learners' needs.

Students chat between classes at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College in Johnstown, PA. A centerpiece of the president's America's Graduation Initiative is to add an additional 5 million community college graduates to the nation’s workforce by 2020. Meeting this goal will require engaging more working learners. (AP/Lisa Kyle)
Students chat between classes at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College in Johnstown, PA. A centerpiece of the president's America's Graduation Initiative is to add an additional 5 million community college graduates to the nation’s workforce by 2020. Meeting this goal will require engaging more working learners. (AP/Lisa Kyle)

A few months back, the president announced America’s Graduation Initiative, or AGI, with a goal to return America to international leadership in college attainment. A centerpiece of the AGI is to add an additional 5 million community college graduates to the nation’s workforce by 2020. The AGI included student lending reform, Pell Grant increases, and investment in community college innovation. In response the House of Representatives passed HR 3221, the Student Access and Fiscal Accountability Act of 2009, which picks up many of the AGI’s initiatives. The Senate is working on its own companion piece of legislation at this writing.

HR 3221 will transform how students and their families finance college by moving from subsidized private sector loans to direct federal government lending. The anticipated administrative savings of more than $80 billion from this transformation will be invested by the Department of Education, in partnership with the Department of Labor, in initiatives to help students and colleges realize the president’s goal of America regaining its status as the world’s leader in college attainment.

A significant amount of the savings will be used to expand the Pell Grant program. And $12 billion will be invested in grants to institutions and states to help community colleges develop new infrastructure, curricula, and practices that will help improve their low completion rate—only about one quarter of students who start community college actually finish.

As the Center for American Progress argued in its paper Working Learners, hitting the goal of 5 million community colleges graduates will mean engaging the 75 million Americans, ages 18 to 64, who are already in the workforce but lack a college credential. This group is diverse and includes high school graduates and dropouts, those with low literacy and limited English, and those with some college or training but with no postsecondary degree or credential. This diversity, however, belies three key common characteristics of working learners:

  • To obtain a postsecondary education, these students will most likely need to work and learn at the same time or move between work and learning frequently.
  • Because these working learners are already active in the workforce, they are seeking to build skills and offer credentials that employers will recognize and compensate.
  • Working learners will need developmental education in literacy, numeracy, technology, English skills, and college success skills to be successful in college-level courses.

These three commonalities needn’t be a challenge for community colleges. After all, they’ve adapted their education model over the years to perform academic preparation for bachelor’s attainment, occupational training, and to a lesser extent developmental or remedial education. Yet their success rate at integrating these three areas in a cost-effective way that delivers student success has proved elusive. The key is for them to use federal investments to promote sustainable innovations that actually transform their core education model.

This brief proposes five guidelines for legislative language to do exactly that.

Erase the “line in the sand” between not-for-credit and for-credit course work

We should preserve the quality of college-level course work, but we should also recognize that if we’re going to meet the president’s goals we have to engage millions of learners whose first courses at community colleges are not for credit. This coursework falls into two categories: remedial education and occupational education, often referred to as skills training.

A student takes remedial coursework when they are not ready for college-level work. While many community colleges offer this coursework, it doesn’t count as a credit toward a credential. This of course adds to both the time and expense that a student has to invest to attain a credential.

This increased time and money is a large challenge, because those individuals most in need of remediation also tend to be in lower-wage jobs and subject to unstable work arrangements. So the longer it takes them to get to a meaningful credential the more likely that a situation will arise that impedes their ability to complete their degree.

Occupational skills training can be anything from taking a class as part of preparing to be a plumber to project management or Oracle certification. The challenge here is more about mapping the skills and competencies needed to get industry-recognized credentials. Significant work has been done in this area since the late 1990s, especially around information technology certifications, but more work needs to be done in health care, construction, and the skilled trades.

We need a credit system that unites these different learning pathways instead of enshrining their differences. There are emergent practices for integrating remedial and for-credit course work—in Washington and Colorado, for instance—and occupational and academic benchmarking (Ohio). These models range from contextualizing basic skills into occupational course work to developing a system of stackable credentials that help benchmark student progress toward a full community college credential.

America’s Graduation Initiative grant funds can supercharge the integration process. The legislation should require that 30 percent of all investment in a funded program be used to integrate or align not-for-credit and for-credit course work in a sustainable education experience that yields a credential with labor market value. This means a new program or course of study is added to the course catalog at the end of the grant.

Matching funds for grants should come from community colleges’ operating budgets

Community colleges receive a significant amount—45 to 60 percent—of their funding through a per-enrollment subsidy usually provided by state legislatures (and from localities). In other words, they receive funding based on how many students enroll. This seat-time revenue gets added to financial aid, institutional support, and student payments to create the college’s operating budget to deliver services.

However, the per-enrollment subsidy forces the core operations of the college to focus on the student credit hour. It firmly entrenches community college culture and operations in academic preparation, and shades all discussion of curricula, programming, and student services in the veil of the four-year colleges and university transition. This limits both the ability to focus on curricula and programs that integrate academic, occupational, and remedial learning as well as limiting the amount of revenue that can be redirected toward innovation in meeting community learning needs. Community colleges have long attempted to adapt education programs to state and regional labor market needs. We need to unleash their strengths in this area.

America’s Graduation Initiative and eventual legislation should require that the 50 percent matching funds schools have to provide should come from their operating budget funds. This requirement will make it necessary to look at all curricula, programs, and services and make tough choices about core competencies balanced against local community education needs. In turn this will maximize the likelihood that sustained institutional change will result from funded projects.

States must manage by evidence

States currently invest in community colleges based on enrollment and not performance. In many cases state legislatures have limited knowledge of their community colleges other than the fact they are providing a second chance for many constituents.

America’s Graduation Initiative and eventual legislation should include grant funds for states to develop systemic changes in their community colleges. In order for states to be eligible to compete for grant funds they should have to:

  • Enact a pilot programs that include performance measures as part of their per student subsidy.
  • Use evidence-based management techniques to promote change across community colleges.

The pilot programs will help states develop performance benchmarks that recognize community college diversity and varied core competencies but that begin to get at management, instruction, and other service practices that actually help students persist to a credential.

Evidence-based management has been used effectively at the municipal and state level in public safety, citizen services, and health care. It uses information technology to organize and analyze granular data about challenges to be met and services being offered in combination with a robust frontline management approach that assesses effort and results.

New York City used these techniques to transform its policing over a 10-year period with a program called CitiStat. Iowa has used evidence-based management through its Iowa Charter Agencies initiative to provide state agencies with budgetary freedom given they meet certain performance benchmarks.

As states pursue systemic change in their community college system EBM can help provide the data and the organizational structure to assess and implement needed changes.

Encourage faculty and student entrepreneurship

Noted management consultant Peter Drucker used to say that entrepreneurship is the exclusive province of the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs see problems others do not and find novel solutions. Someone close to a particular problem is the most apt entrepreneur, and in community college education the two people closest to the challenges that get in the way of success are faculty members and students.

Much of the rhetoric in the AGI and the language and funds in HR 3221 is targeted at the institutional level. This makes fiduciary sense—Congress needs someone to tap on the shoulder to find out where its money is going. But for true entrepreneurship and innovation we need to go one level deeper and create an incentive for faculty-student partnerships that transform community college curricula and programs.

The AGI and final legislation should include a “faculty-student” entrepreneurship prize of $250,000 to the team of faculty and students that actually change curricula and programs in a way that leads to sustainable new course offerings and credentials.

This prize could be based on models such as the NetFlix Innovation prize or the MacArthur Award.

Community colleges can be education leaders

If the AGI is to be successful we must change the community college mindset from one of community education servant to community education leader. The open access mission of most community colleges is critical to their role in helping more Americans get college level education. For most of their institutional history this has meant reactively responding to community education and labor market needs. The reaction has most typically been to vertically integrate more programs into the core education delivery model. This has left community colleges overburdened, always trying to get more money, but in fact getting less—state support has steadily declined over the last two decades, and it has been underutilized.

State funding has been underused because community college leaders and faculty have pedagogical expertise that can be used to guide an extended network of community-based education providers. These providers, from nonprofits to libraries, are located in the neighborhoods where many students live and can provide education services, especially in remediation. The problem is they lack educational standards, guidance, and leadership that can help them connect their students to college-level course work.

Community colleges need resources to take on this role of providing educational leadership even while they analyze their own education services to understand which ones could be better done by others, given others do the work with consistent quality. The ideal of the “open access” to higher education through community colleges can be maintained through an effectively run network of education providers given community colleges have a leadership role in ensuring standards and quality.

AGI and final legislative language for competitive grants to community colleges should include incentives for community colleges that identify core competencies and take a community leadership role in ensuring the quality of distributed education services, particularly in remediation. A corollary to this recommendation is to make sure these types of practices are also integrated into any 2010 Workforce Investment Act reauthorization debate and dialogue.

The America’s Graduation Initiative and its supporting legislation must embrace community colleges as key institutions and look beyond them to a need for adaptable education institutions that can serve students who are becoming more diverse everyday. This vision is needed to successfully engage working learners and hit the president’s goal of college credential attainment.

Louis Soares is Director of the Economic Mobility Program at the Center for American Progress. To learn more about the Center’s adult and postsecondary education policy recommendations please see our reports,Lifelong Learning: New Strategies for the Education for Working Adults,” andCollege Ready Students, Student Ready Colleges: An Agenda for Improving Degree Completion in Postsecondary Education,” on the Education and Economy pages of our website.

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Louis Soares