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The Community College Has Become the Nation’s Engine for Job Training

The community college has the potential to become a central player in workforce development, but that requires breaking down silos and broadly collaborating to meet student and industry needs.
The community college has the potential to become a central player in workforce development, but that requires breaking down silos and broadly collaborating to meet student and industry needs.

Every community college leader in the nation is thrilled that the Biden administration is asking community colleges to play a leading role in training the workforce of the future. The President plans to make good on his promise of free tuition for all, which would fulfill a decades-long dream for community college leaders, students and parents. And more than any past administration, he and his Democrat colleagues understand the key importance community colleges can play in the country’s economic development.

For decades, the community college has been evolving as one of the most successful workforce development agencies in the nation, recognized as such by federal and state legislators and by national and regional business and industries. The amount of funds the federal government has provided for job training at community colleges in the last few years and the potential for additional funding under the Biden administration is staggering.

On April 20, 2021, the House education appropriations subcommittee held a hearing on community colleges in which Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) said, “Our community colleges are the backbone of our education system. It is crucial that we provide them—and their students—with the funding and resources needed to build a brighter and more prosperous future for all Americans.”

The following recent funding is clear testimony that the federal government is doing more than making promises:

  • The Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant of $2 billion in 2008.
  • The Expanding Community College Apprenticeships (ECCA) initiative is led by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor to increase the number of apprentice programs and services throughout the country. The ECCA project will be conducted over 3 years and will train 16,000 apprentices.
  • The Strengthening Community College Training Grant of $45 million in 2020. At the hearing, many community college supporters recommended expanding this program.

The following proposal from the Biden administration is clear testimony of the support this administration is giving community colleges:

  • President Joe Biden’s massive proposal to revamp the nation’s infrastructure will include $12 billion for infrastructure projects at community colleges, $100 billion for workforce development and job retraining, and $3.7 billion to expand the Workforce Investment Opportunity Act.

What is truly amazing is that these federal funds amount to less than the combined billions state and local agencies, grants from foundations and industry contributions have spent. This plethora of funds led James Jacobs and Jennifer Worth to say, in a 2019 article in Terry O’Banion’s book I3 Ideas that Are Transforming the Community College World:

As the new millennium got under way, it became increasingly clear to community college leaders, policymakers, business and industry, and federal and state legislators that workforce development was not only a central mission of the community college; some saw it as a priority of the community college. When the majority of community college students are enrolled in workforce programs rather than liberal arts programs, and when workforce programs are funded extensively by state and federal agencies and by foundations over other community college programs, then it becomes even clearer where the priority is.

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

And therein lies a very thorny problem! Training students for jobs has become the priority for the nation’s community colleges. Intoxicated by the huge amounts of funding available to train students for jobs, community college leaders are expanding job training programs at lightning speed. And it is entirely appropriate that they do so because they have the experience, philosophy, structures, partnerships, faculty and locations to be the nation’s primary engine to prepare students for the workforce it needs.

This article is not an indictment of community colleges for doing their job in serving the nation’s economic needs; it is an indictment of the American educational system for not doing its job in serving students’ diverse needs, allowing them to become fully functioning citizens capable of sustaining a democracy.

Furthermore, this article is an indictment of national, state and local leaders who allocate trillions of dollars for job training and only millions for life training as if there were no connection between the two. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts are the two most visible federal programs that support liberal and general education. lt is difficult to determine exact amounts, but it appears that each of the organizations spends about $100 million a year on project funding. During his tenure as president, Donald Trump tried to eliminate both endowments.

A Path Forward

Is there any educator, parent, legislator, pastor, entertainer, farmer, housekeeper or industrialist who disagrees with the statement, “We want an education that will help our students make a good living and live a good life”? No one really disagrees with the common sense captured in this statement. All of us want—for ourselves, our children and our neighbors—an education that will ensure we are trained to engage in productive work and prepared to lead a productive life. We understand intuitively that human beings do not live by bread alone, but we cannot enjoy life if there is no bread on the table.

For centuries, educators have struggled with attempts to reach the golden mean of helping students make a good living and live a good life, but they have usually done so by contrasting opposing forces, by making the case for one end of the continuum against the other. The arguments for an integrated education are usually framed as workforce education versus liberal education, hands versus heart, hard skills versus soft skills or the skillful hand versus the cultured mind. The literature is full of these either/or arguments, although most thought leaders usually agree that what we need is an integration of both positions. In the end, there is strong agreement with the statement “We want an education that will help our students make a good living and live a good life.”

This historical division is played out on the national stage by two of the oldest education associations in the U. S. Founded in 1915, the mission of today’s Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) is to advance the vitality and public standing of liberal education by making quality and equity the foundations for excellence in undergraduate education in service to democracy. Founded in 1906, today’s Association of Career and Technical Education (ACTE) aims to provide educational leadership in developing a competitive workforce and empower educators to deliver high quality workforce education programs that ensure all students are positioned for career success.

AAC&U and ACTE are among the oldest, largest, most respected educational organizations in the United States. AAC&U with over 1,200 institutional members and ACTE with over 27,000 individual and corporate members serve their members through publications, events, projects, training, research and advocacy that advance their missions. Both promote excellence in education for the good of the learner and society, but they operate in different spheres of influence. Both are caught in the recursive, divisive debate that has swirled for decades—perhaps millennia—between the inherent value of learning and the pragmatic need for economic access and mobility.

One of the challenges of reaching agreement on the golden mean of an essential and integrated education is the historical architecture of silos as barriers to such integration. For example, in the community college we have created two distinct cultures of workforce education and of liberal/general education. (These two terms have different meanings, but here they both refer to learning that helps students live a good life.) They operate in different silos separated by facilities, curricula, staff qualifications, titles, degrees, values and

funding. Visionary leaders have attempted to bridge the divide between the silos by creating structures that house vocational faculty with liberal arts faculty, as in the unit structure at Santa Fe College (FL), or by assigning a vocational faculty member to co-teach with a developmental studies faculty member, as in the I-Best program pioneered by the community.

colleges in Washington State. However creative and well intended these attempts to bridge the great divide have been, they only make more visible the differences between the two cultures.

The following two statements oversimplify the differences between these two cultures, but they provide a handy framework for discussing the issue at hand.

  • The primary purpose of a college education is to train students for a job.
  • The primary purpose of a college education is to prepare students to live a full life.

Neither statement is 100% right or wrong. The path toward solving the dilemma and bridging the divide has been stated clearly for decades. In its landmark 1998 report Building Communities. A New Vision for a New Century the American Association of Community Colleges said:

The aim of a community college education must be not only to prepare students for productive careers, but also to take them beyond their narrow interests, broaden their perspectives, and enable them to live lives of dignity and purpose. The community

college, more than any other higher education institution, should overcome departmental narrowness by integrating technical and career studies with the liberal arts.

Although the American Association of Colleges and Universities focuses its mission as an advocate of liberal education, the Association recognized in its 2010 report The Quality Imperative the need for an education that bridges liberal education and workforce education:

“A great democracy cannot be content to provide a horizon-expanding education for some and work skills, taught in isolation from the larger societal context, for everyone else. It should not be liberal education for some and narrow or illiberal education for others.”

In my 2016 monograph Bread and Roses. Helping Students Make a Good living and Live a Good Life, published by the League for Innovation in the Community College, I proposed an Essential Education for all students as a way forward to bridge the divide between workforce and liberal/general education. “An Essential Education is defined as an integrated core of learning that includes and connects the key components from liberal/general education and workforce education to ensure that a student is equipped to earn a good living and live a good life.” Published as a guide for faculty and college leaders, it includes a brief history of workforce education and general education, makes a case for an Essential Education and proposes seven pathways faculty can use to create an Essential Education for their students.

If faculty from liberal/general education and from workforce education can agree on the common elements of core learning experiences and construct content and teaching strategies that apply to those core learning experiences, we stand a good chance of creating integrated curricula that will help our students make a good living and live a good life. If we fail to create this kind of Essential Education, the community college we know today may cease to exist. And the community college we dream of for the future may never come to be.