EdFix Episode 36: Community Colleges - America's Hidden Economic Engines?

Community colleges welcome learners of all backgrounds and ages with low-cost tuition and open admission policies. According to Robert (Bob) Schwartz, co-author of America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity, these institutions are also extremely well-suited to forge strategic partnerships with industry leaders, skillfully addressing the demands of local labor markets. Through these collaborations, students, employers, and the community reap the rewards of tailored skill development programs. Yet community colleges often face inadequate funding for these kinds of initiatives. Bob advocates for increased recognition and investment in such alternative pathways to help unlock the full potential of community colleges.



If we're waiting around for our four-year colleges and universities to solve the problem of stalled economic mobility for kids from low wealth families, it's going to be a very, very, very long wait.

Welcome to EdFix - your source for insights about the promise and practice of education. I'm your host, Michael Feuer, I am the Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University. I have a great honor today to welcome my guest for this episode of EdFix, whose name is Bob Schwartz

Bob Schwartz joined the Harvard University faculty in 1996, where he then spent 25 years, including five as the academic dean of the Graduate School of Education. In his spare time while he was at Harvard, Bob also became the president of an organization called Achieve, which for any of our listeners who remember the heyday of American education school reform and the Standards Movement know how important Achieve was and Bob's central role in promoting the ideals of the standards movement. In addition, Bob has been a consultant to business and government in many ways and has been a philanthropist working at The Pew Charitable Trusts, where he has also been instrumental in promoting some of the most interesting initiatives in education. 

So Bob, let's get to it! Welcome to EdFix. I'm eager to hear a little bit about your most recent work, and I know that you are continuing work on issues related to skills, the economy, and now most particularly the role of community colleges as a source, or as you call it in your latest book, an engine of American prosperity.

First of all, welcome! It's wonderful to have you and have a chance to talk together. Tell us a little bit about this latest bit of work that you've been doing for all of our listeners.

Sure, and thanks Michael. It's really a pleasure to be here. As it happens, next week this new book on community colleges, which is a series of case studies of five community colleges that I and my co-author, Rachel Lipson, think do a particularly strong job in both putting economic advancement front and center in terms of for everybody who walks in the door, whether or not it's a 18-year-old straight out of high school or a 45-year-old looking for a short-term credential to kind of re-skill himself or herself to move up in the labor market, these schools that we've looked at behave as if they really have two clients. Students first, obviously, but they also really take care to develop strong, deep relationships with industry leaders in their region. So they're not simply kind of responding to the current economic circumstances in their region, but with economic development organizations and other kind of economic partners, they're really trying to reshape their region's economy as well.

So it's interesting because as you probably know, Michael, I, or you might infer, I came to community colleges relatively late in the game. I'm a high school person. I started my career as a high school teacher, I was a high school principal. I've always been interested in these transition issues of high school to college, high school to work. In the 90s was very involved in the school to work movement then, and a decade ago, actually 12 years ago, wrote a report with two Harvard colleagues called Pathways to Prosperity, in which we kind of challenged the notion that everybody was going to go off and get a four-year degree and live happily ever after. Pointed out at that time the data suggested that this might be a nice wish, but we were extremely far from that at the time, about 28% of 25-year-olds had a four-year degree.

We've been making progress ever since, but we're still in a situation where barely half of 25 year olds have a four-year degree or better, or a two-year degree, or even a short term credential with value in the labor market. So we've got a big lift ahead of us. Particularly starting with this pathways work that my wife and I and others started, it was nominally a partnership between the Graduate School of Education, which was me, and an organization called Jobs for the Future, which at the time had maybe 120 people and now has over 350 people a decade or 12 years later.

We started this national network based on the really extraordinary response we got to the Pathways Report that I just reflected on, and what we essentially were trying to do was to work with states and regions around the country to build strategies that spanned typically the last two years of high school and the first two years of post-secondary. Like a lot of people in this part of the school reform world, if you want to call it that, we were building off of a lot of work over the last 20 years and career academies and similar kinds of projects, but most of that work kind of got stuck in high schools. It really became mostly a strategy for engaging kids, motivating them, persuading them to stick it out in high school by really trying to use careers and access to careers as a motivator.

Our interest when we started the Pathways Network was really to think beyond high school and really think about building pathways into a good careers, but particularly careers that did not necessarily require a four-year degree. Like everybody else in that business, we kind of started with high schools and figured we would eventually get to community colleges and then to employers. What we learned about halfway through the decade was the way to really do this work is start with employers, start with the demand side. Where are there employers and what fields were employers really feeling the pain and significantly concerned enough about their talent pipelines to want to reach back and engage with education institutions?

It became clear, to me at least, that the education institution that employers were likeliest as to want to work with, in the US at least, was the community college. Our employers tend to have a pretty short term view of the world. Most of them, if you talk to them about 16-year-olds in their workplaces, they will roll their eyes. They'll think about their own 16-year-olds who they're trying to persuade to get out of bed in the morning and say, "Okay, is this person going to actually add value to my workplace?"

I'm jumping around a bit, but if I go back to the Pathways Report of 2011, one of the themes of that report, one of the questions we really raised was, why is it that American policymakers have paid so little attention to what other countries around the world, especially European countries, Scandinavian countries, but especially Germany and Austria and Switzerland, why have we learned so little from what these countries do to get a much, much larger fraction of their young people, not only through high school, but out the other end with credentials that have value in the labor market and that enable them to really get started by their early 20s in a career field? We were particularly taken with the kind of youth apprenticeship, so-called dual system countries, where young people are spending half their time at a workplace and half their time in aligned education.

Before we go overseas and untangle the school to work issues and the labor markets, of let's say Western Europe, I want to start with a more elementary question in case people wonder, what do we actually mean by community college? My hunch is there's a lot of diversity and there's a whole ecology even within that sector. Say something about that.

Totally, totally right. There's, I don't know, a thousand plus community and technical colleges. These are two-year institutions typically with few, if any, entrance requirements. They are the institutions where half of the Hispanic students in the country who go on to college start, about 40% of African American students start their college careers in community colleges. Given their size they are, I like to say within commuting distance of all but the most rural Americans, but they vary widely in a whole bunch of dimensions. I would argue they both serve the neediest students in higher education and they are the least well-funded institutions in higher education. They are typically multi-purpose institutions, they serve young people right out of high school, they serve adults coming back for short term training, they serve adults who are just looking for some avocational programs, something to do with their time.

There are big regional variations. In places like Massachusetts, where I live, or New York or California most obviously, these institutions were mainly established to provide a low cost first two years of a college education. So the transfer function tends to be the function that really dominates their work and that's the function for which they get typically the most funding.

In the South, by contrast, and in some Midwestern states, community colleges were really established primarily for workforce purposes. Smart governors in the late 50s and 60s in the South wanting to attract northern companies to move south, had lots of things that they could offer. They could offer land, they could offer low taxes, they could offer no labor unions, right to work laws. But often company leaders would say, "Well, that's all great, but when we look at your education system, we are really nervous. How are we going to get the skilled workers that we need if we're going to move our plant to your state?" The answer of governors like Fritz Hollings in South Carolina and Bill Winters in Mississippi, and others I could rattle off said, "We'll build you a new set of institutions, workforce institutions, to get you a skilled workforce." So in the south, there's really very little debate about the purpose of community colleges, whereas there's a continuing debate elsewhere.

We wrote this book, commissioned these case studies by five fabulous graduate students of ours, to really show what it takes to actually prioritize workforce development across a whole institution. We picked places in different regions with different demographics, different industries. NOVA [Northern Virginia Community College] would be the one I suspect known to the most of your listeners, among other things, because that's where the First Lady teaches. But it's in the DC area, it's a big institution, I don't know, 80,000 students, something like that, and we picked it in part because reputation is really primarily, I would say, for the quality of its transfer programs. In particular it has a program with George Mason that was the subject of a recent news hour kind of profile.

Anne Crest, the president, happened to come to NOVA after several years leading Monroe Community College in Rochester, and that community college, she and her vice president, Todd Oldham, put that place on the map because this was a place with a declining manufacturing base where big companies like Eastman Kodak had died or left, and the community college's right in the middle of a significant effort to kind of restructure, reframe the whole economy of the region. Challenge at NOVA is very different, but what Anna and her colleagues have been able to do in particular has been to attract companies like Amazon and others in the high-tech space with a lot of the programming that they do. So without at all diminishing the strength of their transfer programs, they've also built a really strong set of workforce programs.

I want to pick up on one of the points you made there, which is about these enlightened governors who invested in community colleges because they understood that that would have economic benefit to their state. In other words, that there is a real public good aspect of community colleges-

Absolutely right.

They serve employers who are trying to make a profit. It takes a public sector to organize the institution that then produces this value both to the public, to the employers, and by the way, to the individual students who derive a certain amount of return on this investment also.

In a sense, what we're trying to do with our report, I mean the title is America's Hidden Economic Engines, and we say hidden because in much of the country that's simply not the way legislators, governors, or others think about their community colleges and they don't fund them. I mean, in Massachusetts for example, our community colleges get no funding for workforce issues. There's a separate division, that kind of continuing education and workforce typically over there someplace, and it's expected to raise its own money. The way they raise their own money is doing short term contract work with companies, but this is not a strategy in most of these places for developing longer term talent pipeline kinds of approaches.

If I can digress for one minute, we picked five colleges to look at and one is Pima in Tucson. When Lee Lambert, who's the current president, got there a decade ago, same thing as in Massachusetts, his workforce division was expected entirely to raise its own funding. He said, "Hey, wait a minute, this is one of the two most important functions in the institution. If it's important to us, we have to fund it." A decade later there are now 100 people in the workforce division, 30 of whom or so are entirely workforce facing and entirely employer facing.

By the way, these cases were all developed by graduate students with full course loads during COVID. So all these cases were done virtually and we obviously required very close cooperation from the college presidents to open doors set up interviews, etc. But late in May, a year ago, Rachel Lipson, my co-editor and I, we had a little bit of money and she went out to Lorraine Community College in Ohio and I went out to Tucson to interview both leadership people in the college, but more importantly employers and other leadership people in the community.

The thing that really sticks with me from that, we did this nine minute videos, but the thing that really sticks with me was that the vice president of the region's economic development agency called SUNCAR, it's one of these quasi-governmental organizations, but 60 CEOs on its board, entirely focused on regional economic development. He said, "We don't have a meeting that really matters without having somebody from Pima in the room. Then off the record, we have the University of Arizona here, great university, and we do a lot of work with them. When it comes to nimbleness and flexibility and responsiveness to the needs of employers, it's Pima, they're the ones that they can answer employers questions around skills and workforce." So that, to me, that's one of the things we were kind of looking for in these cases.

Let me pivot to one of the debate points that has a considerable amount of space even on the front pages, and that is the argument about whether community college should become essentially free to students. What's the plus/minus on that?

Yeah, it's funny, I was a participant in a group, mostly college presidents who were drafting a statement basically focused on short-term Pells. There's this debate around whether or not Pell Grants ought to be opened up so that, rather than requiring people to be at least full-time, six months or whatever, where they should be opened up for shorter term programs. I refused to kind of sign off on this statement that was actually being sent to congressional leaders, in part because the issue of free community college came up. I'm a kind of outlier on this, I think, which is that my view is that the only rationale for free community college, in my mind, ought to be if we really do see community colleges as primarily engines for economic workforce and economic development. My nightmare is extending two more years of compulsory education, to extend high school, in effect, into community college.

As you know, I mean, senior year in many places is a kind of lost year. Then one reason that I and my colleagues have pushed so hard around moving the acceleration and expansion of the early college high school movement and dual enrollment is a lot of kids are really ready to move on and move directly into early college programming. In fact, one of the things that's keeping community colleges afloat these days is typically something like 20% of their enrollment is coming from high school kids. To me, that's a significant plus if we act on it in the right way.

I want to say two more things that are related while I'm thinking of it. One is that, I mean, a pushback argument that anybody who knows the data can make to me is, "Hey, wait a minute, 80% of people who walk in the door of a community college say they're there to get a four-year degree." I'm talking about first time, full-time students, students coming out of high school. Six years later, only about 15% actually succeed. Why do you think community colleges are such great institutions to really hang your head on? I use that argument-

What percentage actually succeed?



15, 1-5. This is actually two people that you've interviewed before, Sandy Baum and... Actually, it was Sandy and Harry Holster who did a book on community colleges where that particular data point came up. The other interesting data point, and this is putting some things together here, is that to me it's really striking that even now, mostly post COVID, when everybody's screaming about labor shortages, 40% of 25-year-olds with four year degrees are working in jobs that didn't really require a four-year degree. So the question is, how do we put these data pieces together? To me, they both enforce at least the argument that we like to make, which is that we really need to focus much more attention on getting the mass of young people through to a first post-secondary credential with value in the labor market. First post-secondary credential with value in the labor market.

Our premise is that, at least in metropolitan America, unless you have some credential beyond a high school diploma, the likelihood of your being able to get on a path that can lead you to a middle class, middle income wage, family supporting wage, however you want to put it, is very low. You are likely to be stuck in low skill, low wage work. A lot of economists will say, "Well, yes, that's right, and guess what? You need a four-year degree." We've been arguing all along, we think there's a lot of data that suggests it's no longer simply a matter of how much education you get, but to what degree the skills that you get actually match the requirements of your regional labor market.

So we focus on industry certifications, we focus on short term and one year post-secondary certificates, we focus on two-year applied degrees, as well as four-year degrees and apprenticeship. We think those options all ought to be on the table, but the operating question always ought to be... We should be looking at these options, if you will, always with one eye on the labor market. That may seem overly instrumental, and I'm happy to have a debate about what's the purpose of higher ed, is it only to get people started on a job? Obviously I don't believe that, but we see evidence all around us of its growing disaffection with four-year degrees, parents expressing increasing skepticism, students increasing skepticism, and employers increasingly, largely in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, now saying, "Let's figure out some ways to move more towards skill-based hiring. Let's depend less on degrees and more on skills."

We're seeing big companies, IBM five years ago, 90% of their job postings required a four-year degree, now it's down to 50%. They're hiring people and then training them, which is great. We're seeing Accenture and other big companies doing something similar. I mean, I and almost everybody else I work with are the products of liberal arts education, and we obviously continue to value that. We've got to figure out some way to respond to the concerns around both cost and time.

I carry around one slide with me, in a world that's data focused, this is a slide that is based on the work of a sociologist in the University of Michigan named Fabian Pfeffer. What he did was look at everyone born in the 1970s and the 1980s and he put them into three groups by family wealth, top 20%, middle 40%, bottom 40%, and asked two questions. What proportion of each group by age 25 had a four-year degree? What proportion had some post-secondary education? As you might guess, the top 20% we're not going to worry much about as a matter of public policy, it's about 60% of a four-year degree. You could ask, gee, why is it so low relative to... But that's about twice the national average. Actually, in the middle 40%, it's about 33%. It's been going up, I think now seeing it maybe 37% four-year degree or higher. But in the bottom 40%, just think about that, bottom 40% for those born in the 1970s, it was 11.3%. For those born in the 1980s, 11.8%. Essentially, absolutely flat line.

We could spend our hour unpacking that, but to me, the bottom line policy implication is if we're waiting around for our four-year colleges and universities to solve the problem of stalled economic mobility for kids from low wealth families, it's going to be a very, very, very long wait. Community colleges, for better or worse, that's where the public investment is, right? I mean, we hear a lot of talk about Year Up, wonderful program, Per Scholas, wonderful program, bootcamps, etc. You hear a lot of talk about the programs funded under the federal WIOA legislation, the Workforce Investment Opportunity Act. It's like, they add up to like 2% of the population.

The public institution with the infrastructure and where public resources are not enough, but the place we ought to be focusing on, I would argue, to both get many more young people through to that first post-secondary credential and to be able to address the increasing problems of adults whose jobs are disappearing and getting them skills to get back in into the labor market and move forward, it's the community colleges, that's what we've got. So figuring out how to make them work to address these big social policy problems, to me that's what our book is aimed at.

Yeah, so maybe part of the problem is that with all of the warts and pimples on the American school system, we still do have the most productive labor force in the world. So some people who listen to this must be thinking, well, gosh, why would we want to make some kind of huge national investment in skills and that sort of thing, when actually the economy is humming even with its very hidden economic engines?

We have 44% of the workforce working for $17 an hour or less. We have 35% of Americans, I saw just in a wonderful housing article yesterday in the Times Magazine section, or on Sunday, who have significant housing problems of one kind or another. I mean, we continue to be a hugely inequitable society. Given the changing demographics, we may have a highly productive workforce now, but if we don't address these problems of our education system and our workforce system, 15 years from now we're not going to have that.

Thank you so much, Bob Schwartz. The title of Bob and Rachel Lipson's new book is America's Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity

Thank you for what you've done so far for American education, and for that matter global education, and to wish you well and say thank you on behalf of EdFix.

For our listeners, if you enjoyed this episode, which I know you did, you can subscribe to the EdFix podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, or wherever you may be listening to your podcasts. Our executive producer, engineer, technical maven, and all-purpose, superb communications officer, Touran Waters, makes all of this possible. We have a website called EdFixPodcast.com. Once again, thank you to Bob Schwartz.


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