The United States desperately needs skilled workers. But the community colleges that train them are woefully underfunded.

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By Alicia Wallace, CNN Business

Like America seeks to train workers for the hundreds of thousands of new Infrastructure jobs that are being created, it will have to rely heavily on community colleges.

But these workhorse development workhorses face their own infrastructure challenges.

Related to the pandemic declines in enrollments, particularly in hands-on skilled trades courses, have not has made matters worse for these long overstretched and underfunded schools. And while Covid relief money has served as a boon for cash-strapped community colleges, trustees say these one-time funds are running out.

“It’s driving the growth in the number of skilled workers doing these types of jobs,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. “[That engine]well, it crackles.

Despite these barriers, many schools are adopting innovative approaches to train the workers of tomorrow.

“Shaken to the Core”

There’s usually a pattern with community colleges during economic cycles, said Riley Acton, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Miami in Ohio.

“Especially in a recession, we see an increase in community college enrollment” for both high school graduates and displaced workers, she said.

But that hasn’t happened during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has been totally different in that regard,” she said. “We’ve actually seen community college enrollment decline significantly.”

From fall 2019 to fall 2021, two-year public school enrollment fell 14.8%, the steepest declines among post-secondary schools during this period, according to to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. By comparison, undergraduate enrollment fell 4% at public four-year institutions.

Two-year public schools are also at their lowest enrollment level (7.7 million students) in nearly 20 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The largest declines in enrollment were seen among men. According to a working paper released last month by Schanzenbach of Northwestern and Sarah Turner, a professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia, the drop was likely due to the disproportionate disruption the pandemic has had on skilled trades courses.

While most lectures could go virtual, it was nearly impossible for on-site laboratories and workshops, where students learn by working with tools, machines and equipment.

“All hands-on classes were so disrupted because we couldn’t meet in person,” said Kendall Davis, a welding instructor at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City.

Davis said he had a 72% failure rate in the spring of 2020.

“When we finally got together, with social distancing and masking, all the lectures and information we [studied] … they basically forgot all that information,” he said. “I almost had to take lectures again, and it was quite a learning curve”

This decline in skilled trades courses will further disrupt an already worker-starved sector, Schanzenbach said.

“This pipeline has been discontinued,” she said.

And while some restrictions have eased, registrations haven’t fully rebounded. Some administrators attribute this to competition with the local job market, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

School presidents have told the AACC that many prospective students are turning to entry-level jobs that now pay much higher salaries, she said.

“If students are making $18 to $25 an hour in an entry-level position, they’re not necessarily inclined to come to class,” she said.

If negative budget and enrollment trends continue, it could lead to a downward spiral for schools that are already “on life support,” said Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

For some community colleges, funding is tied to enrollment, he said. So if those enrollments decline, local and state funding could decline, resulting in fewer classes, fewer teachers, and fewer services. That, in turn, could further reduce enrollment in schools that not only provide essential job training but also serve a more racially and socioeconomically diverse student base, he said.

“Long term, this is a very worrying trend for them as individuals and for the nation as a whole,” he said.

Positioning for the future

Ten years ago, Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City’s budget was $32 million.

“It’s now $30 [million]said Kimberly Beatty, chancellor of the college.

Rising inflation has made it more difficult to fund programs, she said.

The $70.6 million in pandemic relief funding that the Metropolitan Community College system received was essential to make repairs, launch programs and attract employees, she said. But many of these costs are permanent.

Fortunately, the efforts Beatty led five years ago put the college in a strong position to train for the infrastructure roles coming online.

MCC has brought together several schools and programs to create learning hubs. This included relocating vocational and technical education programs to a new, state-of-the-art facility closer to downtown, with better accessibility to bus routes and the public school district.

The Institute of Advanced Technical Skills has double the capacity of programs, such as welding, and incorporates a variety of technology efforts suitable for the pandemic and the future, such as virtual reality training and outdoor labs.

With pandemic relief funds running out, it’s not immediately clear what additional support might come at the federal level.

President Joe Biden’s plan for tuition-free community colleges went off the rails when this provision has been removed of the Build Back Better bill, who has now found himself in stasis.

Some members of Congress are optimistic that support for community colleges will come through other means.

Senator Tim Kaine, in an interview with CNN Business, noted three recent bill reintroductions: the JOBS Act, which would extend Pell Grant eligibility to students in career and technical education programs; the BUILDS Act, which includes provisions to connect businesses and schools and develop curricula; and the Careers Access Act, which would include grants to community colleges.

“If you focus on equity…we particularly want to succeed in communities that have missed out on opportunity,” Kaine said.

Community colleges, he said, could serve as the backbone of the nation’s critical infrastructure jobs.

And a potential model is being developed in his home state of Virginia, where the community college system recently partnered with trade organizations and corporations to launch the Virginia Infrastructure Academy. The institute will coordinate courses across the 23 schools in the system and work closely with industry partners to train workers in areas such as transportation, green energy and broadband.

It follows G3, a tuition assistance program for low- and moderate-income Virginians to receive workforce training in in-demand fields; and Fast forwarda workforce training program with offerings lasting 6 to 12 weeks.

“I think the ‘big quit’ that happened really helped people open their eyes and ask questions about the type of career, the type of job that satisfies me and makes me feel good about choices I made,” John said. Downey, president of Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia. “And I think when people start thinking about that, community colleges are in a good position to say, ‘Hey, you can come here and retrain in whatever areas you’re passionate about.

In preparation, Blue Ridge and other community colleges are also trying to address “supplemental services” – needs such as transportation, housing, access to food and babysitting — partnering with community providers to help reduce potential barriers to enrolment.

“The jobs are there, the training is there,” he said. “What’s difficult is that people find it very difficult to stop what they’re doing long enough to get the training they need to get a better job.”

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