Grading Community Colleges, 5 Years Into Obama Improvement Efforts

Apr 21, 2014
Originally published on April 21, 2014 2:52 pm

President Obama has been touting community colleges almost since he got into office. In 2009, at Macomb Community College in Michigan, he said, “Community colleges are an essential part of our recovery in the present — and our prosperity in the future. This place can make the future better, not just for these individuals but for America.”

Earlier this month, Obama went to Allegheny Community College in Pennsylvania to announce that $600 million in existing job training money would be redirected to programs that would set up apprenticeships with businesses and partner with businesses in a competitive grant program to teach real-world job skills in the classroom.

So with all the attention from the White House, how are community colleges doing? Peter Coy has been writing about this for Bloomberg Businessweek and joins Here & Now’s Robin Young with details.


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President Obama has long touted community colleges as pathways to jobs. Here he is at Macomb Community College in Michigan in 2009.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, I'm announcing the most significant down payment yet on reaching the goal of having the highest college graduation rate of any nation in the world. We're going to achieve this in the next 10 years.

YOUNG: Well, earlier this month, Obama spoke at Allegheny Community College in Pennsylvania, pushing what he called a seamless progression from community college programs to industry-recognized credentials and credit towards a college degree. Now - only now, the administration is adding grant programs, a competition for funds and apprenticeships. Peter Coy is economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Hi, Peter.


YOUNG: And start with the latest initiative, a $500 million grant program plus a $100 million apprenticeship program. We were just hearing this partnership with employers. How would this work?

COY: These are competitions. The idea is to get employers, community colleges, national trade groups to get together into consortia and then compete for these grants. The one that's going to get the grant will be the one that does the best job of persuading the grantors - that is the Labor Department - that they can work together successfully, that they can create pathways for people who have no jobs or are underemployed. You know, the funny thing about this is that it seems so obvious, doesn't it? It's like, of course we want to do that. And yet it's been incredibly hard.

YOUNG: Well, talk about some of the problems. What do community colleges tend to think that their role is?

COY: Well, I think, too often, they have a curriculum that they worked out at some point in the past. And they hire the teachers and the teachers go in and teach the class, and they're just not in touch with the current needs of employers. So, I mean, if you go to Harvard, you'll probably be OK even if you major in philosophy. But if you go to community college, you're there to learn very usable skills. It may be only a certificate program, it may be an associate's degree, or it could be the first couple of years of - towards a bachelor's degree. But whatever it is, you're career-oriented, and that's precisely where community colleges need to do a better job.

YOUNG: Well - and this is shifting thinking maybe in the minds of the students who go to community colleges. You have an interesting statistic about what some students think when they go to a community college.

COY: Well, something like 80 percent of students who start out in community college have the objective of eventually getting a bachelor's degree, and nowhere near 80 percent actually achieve that. But it goes to show that they do have this dual or tri-mission. For some students, community college is the last college they'll ever go to. But then there are others who see it as a stepping stone for - towards more education.

YOUNG: Well - and another part of this new plan addresses, as you said, sort of a third prong here. You've got students, schools and now businesses. We remember doing an arc of stories early in the Obama administration. There were community colleges that were being swamped with former telephone company workers, who were coming to retrain to learn how to work on and build wind turbines.

But then the turbine industry stalled a bit because they lost their funding. And this is, you know, years ago. And so that pipeline of telephone workers to turbine workers didn't work. In this case, it seems as if this plan is putting the industry into the plan.

COY: Exactly. And, you know, you're going to guess wrong once in a while. You're going to train people for jobs that turn out to be not jobs of the future. But if you're really agile, and that requires a good president, a real leader, a person who really reaches out both towards employers and towards the students, if you can do that, then you'll never get too far behind the eight ball. You'll figure out what employers need now, and you'll switch rapidly to providing those skills.

YOUNG: And, Peter, we hear a lot of reportage around middle class, upper middle class American kids trying to get into certain schools, what their SAT levels might be, how competitive it is, how they're all trying to get into the same schools that are rated the top schools by certain magazines. This is a different population. Do we know how big this population is that wants to go to school to get a hands-on job?

COY: We're talking about roughly one-third of students who earn post-secondary education are in two-year colleges.

YOUNG: That's a lot.

COY: And, of course, some of the students who are in four-year colleges had come through these community colleges. So yeah, it's very substantial. And community colleges generally have an open door. If you have a high school degree or GED, they'll usually take you even if they have to give you some remedial education. It's a great second chance for a lot of people.

YOUNG: The apprentice program portion of this is building on programs that are already under way. Companies like Ford, General Motors, Deere, UPS, United Auto Workers union, all of them have this program where they help train apprentices. And we understand that 87 percent of apprentices get jobs after finishing trading programs, an average starting salary of more than $50,000 a year. Who else is gauging how well these programs work?

COY: The Aspen Institute has a biennial award for the best community colleges. And in 2013, the co-winners were sent to Barbara City College and Walla Walla Community College. They named two finalists with distinction: Kingsborough Community College in New York and Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota. So you can find, you know, points of light all around the country.

YOUNG: One last question, Peter Coy. We've talked about apprenticeships before - very common in Europe, for instance - and it was always said that one of the stumbling blocks here is unions, that apprenticeship is seen giving someone work, you know, hands-on work without union protection. Is that an issue here at all?

COY: Unions in general have had a long tradition of providing training to their members for jobs. So it just needs to be tinkered with a little bit to make sure those workers are protected. But unions should be seen as allies rather than opponents in the apprenticeship programs.

YOUNG: Peter Coy, Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor, on the new plan to bring apprenticeship programs and businesses into training programs at community colleges. Peter, thank you.

COY: Thank you.

YOUNG: And if you're just tuning in, we have results in the Boston Marathon. Thirty-eight-year-old Meb Keflezighi, a name we will become familiar with, born in Eritrea but now an American citizen, became the first American in decades to win. HERE AND NOW's Alex Ashlock was at the finish line.

ALEX ASHLOCK, BYLINE: Oh, it's been an amazing race. You can hear the crowd behind me, Robin, up Boylston Street, cheering as Meb Keflezighi crosses the finish line. It looks like his time is going to be 2:08:38. He won the Boston Marathon. The women's race today went to Rita Jeptoo of Kenya. She won the Boston Marathon for the second straight year. And, Robin, she was the runner who, I think, actually said when the bombs happen last year that she was wondering whether she should come back.

YOUNG: HERE AND NOW's Alex Ashlock. In the wheelchair division, Tatyana McFadden won the women's race for the second straight year, Ernst Van Dyk won the men's division for a record 10th time. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.