WASHINGTON — On this Labor Day weekend, the unemployment rate is anchored near 10 percent, and experts of all stripes are trying to figure out how to create more jobs. There's consensus that community colleges help retrain workers for 21st century tasks and provide students the skills that employers increasingly seek, but funding for these vital institutions remains inadequate.
Higher education policy in the nation's capital focuses most on boosting four-year college graduation rates. However, not all jobs require a college degree, and community colleges increasingly have to choose between preparing students for the modern work force or teaching standard classroom courses toward four-year college education.
Evidence of these conflicting priorities abounds at Anne Arundel Community College, near Maryland's capital, Annapolis. There enrollment, already over 55,000, is growing at an annual clip of 5 percent or more, as more high school grads attend for two years in pursuit of an eventual four-year college degree.
Joining them are students eagerly seeking practical job-training skills.
Lynetta Flack, 58, takes a professional baking class. After retiring from a long career in the Army, she obtained a culinary degree and became a chef, but now she's back for certification as a baker to make herself more marketable.
"You can never learn too much," she said.
Richard Fowler, 30, is taking night classes. When the economy soured, he lost his job as a radar integration and test engineer at defense contractor Northrop Grumman. Now he seeks certification to land a job as a computer network engineer.
"I've been to several job fairs, probably 10 in the last month or two. They don't really say, 'Hey, you don't have the certification so I can't hire you.' They kind of allude to that," he said.
Community colleges traditionally provided vocational training and prepared students for careers in food service or health care. Today, however, they're just as likely to provide training for everything from computer-aided architectural design to cyber-security and computer programming. Employers increasingly count on these colleges to certify work skills.
"In the past we heard employers much more interested in soft skills, teaching employees things like customer service or supervision," said Laura Weidner, the dean of work force development at Anne Arundel. "Now, they want to know, 'Where's the certification in supervision or management?'"
Enrollment in two-year study programs at community colleges nationwide was up 17 percent last year, said George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. Over five years, enrollment is up 30 percent.
However, as enrollment has risen, states haven't provided enough money to keep pace. In fact, state funding of community colleges is on the downswing. In 1980, sixteen states footed the bill for 60 percent or more of their community college budgets. Last year, none did.
President Barack Obama's American Graduation Initiative, launched in July 2009, seeks to boost community college graduation by 5 million students by 2020. One trend may help that goal be reached: Many states have enrollment caps for four-year public universities. That's led to a surge in students trying to get two years at community colleges before transferring to a four-year school. It's also muddied the mission of community colleges.
"The public discourse needs to be developing a highly trained, qualified work force, and the role community colleges can play in developing the work force needs to be put on the top of the agenda," said Janice Friedel, a professor of educational policy at California State University-Northridge.
Stephen Katsinas, the director of the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center, conducts an annual national survey of community college funding.
Last year's survey found that 92 percent of state respondents thought that Obama's effort would require expanding community colleges. And 96 percent reported that funding for new facilities is a major need.
Martha Smith, the president of Anne Arundel Community College, knows this struggle for funds all too well.
"There's been recognition, at the national level, of the importance of community colleges, even across administrations," Smith said. She noted that President George W. Bush launched his community-based job training grants at her college in 2006. "There has been awareness, and some dollars following that awareness of the need."
"Some dollars" is the telltale term.
Dedicated state and federal funding remains inadequate; much of the funding comes from one-time-only federal, state and private grants. Chasing grants ties up manpower, as schools constantly seek their renewal.
"Work force training is an unfunded mandate. There are no dedicated revenue streams for work force training programs," Katsinas said. "The unfunded mission has been to build sustainable communities, which directly ties to surveying and upgrading the skills of the work force. I agree very much with the idea that a dedicated revenue stream for the community workforce training is needed."
Obama's American Graduation Initiative — announced at Macomb Community College in Michigan — envisioned $12 billion in new spending over a decade. Last year only 5 percent of U.S. community college revenues came from the federal government, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.
The president also appointed Martha Kanter, a former chancellor of a Silicon Valley community college district, as his undersecretary for higher education at the Department of Education. That's the highest DOE post ever for a community college leader.
Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, a community college professor in Northern Virginia, will head an administration summit on community college education later this year.
So far, however, politics has trumped policy when it comes to boosting federal funds for community colleges.
Democrats in Congress last year tried to attach Obama's proposed community college funding to the sweeping health care legislation. It was stripped out in the final push for passage, partly because of concerns over costs.
Lawmakers settled on a less ambitious measure, authorizing $2 billion over four years for grants to community colleges through Labor Department programs to aid workers displaced by international trade.
Team Obama hopes to revive his whole $12 billion program, in recognition that community colleges nationwide have such great needs.
"They're bursting at the seams and the resources they have available are half to a third per student of what most public four-year colleges get. There's a huge mismatch between available resources and the need," said Hal Plotkin, a senior Education Department adviser.
In Maryland, Smith and her board of trustees didn't wait on Washington, launching their own Student Success 2020. Their plan seeks to boost graduation rates — and alternate sources of revenue.
Her college provides a good example of new possibilities for work force training. Its proximity to the National Security Agency led to a partnership for training cyber combatants, whose job it'll be to defeat computer hackers and purveyors of malicious software.
"We will map course curricula to those new job titles . . . we're talking about a whole new work force that doesn't exist today," said Kelly Koermer, the dean of the School of Business, Computing & Technical Studies, home of the Cyber Center.
Industry isn't waiting either. The National Association of Manufacturers, through its Manufacturing Institute, last year began pushing for nationally recognized certification for skills learned at community colleges.
The NAM-Endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System is now being tested at a handful of community colleges in four states — North Carolina, Ohio, Washington and Texas. The association wants certification for standardized "stackable skills," training that isn't limited to a single job in a single industry, but rather teaches an array of skills.
"The evolution of manufacturing in virtually every sector of an advanced manufacturing enterprise . . . has changed the requirements — for higher levels of education and manufacturing skills," said Emily DeRocco, the president of the institute and a former assistant secretary of labor. "That's what really created the skills gap. Absent the recession, we had a skills gap."
She pointed to Caterpillar Inc.'s recent decision to locate a plant in Winston-Salem, N.C., in part because of a skilled work force coming out of the local community college.
"I think it's important that we recognize the important role that community colleges play, and have the potential to play," she said. "That's absolutely critical."
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