The Impact of Community Colleges on the School-to-Work Transition: A Multilevel Analysis

Article excerpt

In the past several decades scholars have expressed increasing concern about the school-to-work transition at all levels of education (William T. Grant Foundation 1988; Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce 1990; Hershey et. al 1999). Major policy initiatives, such as the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, recognized the community college as an essential component in helping subbaccalaureate students make the transition from school to work. A number of scholars have described the role of the community college as a "transitional institution" and as a "nexus" or a means of connection to the workplace (McCabe, 1998; Grubb, 1996; Grubb, et. al., 1997; Orr, 1998), especially in the rapidly changing technological and economic context of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century (Alfred et. al., 1999). The localized orientation of community colleges would seem to make them especially well-suited to respond to labor market demands and student goals.

Defenders of community college vocational education maintain that community college education applies directly to the demands of the labor market. According to Parnell (1985), the hallmark of high-quality community colleges is that "they [help to] trigger economic revitalization by matching skills to the needs of employers" (p. 95). Indeed, Shults (1997) recognized the need for community colleges to "secure the lead" in providing workforce training to their students. As suggested by Schuyler's (1997) review of training programs, community colleges are viewed as leaders in workforce development through their investment in the human capital of their students.

However, others have expressed concern about vocational training in community colleges and the school-to-work transition. Critics have claimed that community colleges are not fully accountable for student outcomes because they are not required to substantiate their positive claims about job availability, placement, and potential salaries (Diener, 1986). Pincus (1986) contended that community college vocational programs fail to meet students' expectations: "By and large, there is no good evidence that vocational education in community colleges delivers on the promises of secure employment, decent pay and ample career opportunities" (p. 49). More recently, Dougherty (1994) asserted that although community colleges do attempt to respond to industry needs, they do so inefficiently and "often under and overshoot the demands of the labor market, in many cases, training far more people than the labor market can absorb and in other cases, producing fewer workers than business would like" (p. 67).

This doubt about the effectiveness of community colleges in preparing students for work points to the need for additional research on the topic. However, a careful search into the educational literature reveals that few studies specifically address the role of community colleges in bridging the transition from school to work. The U.S. Department of Education (1994) has noted that a small number of community colleges have developed courses on education-labor linkages and school-to-work issues.

Perhaps the most relevant literature on the role of community colleges in linking school to work is the research on Technical Preparation (Tech Prep) programs. These partnerships between high schools and community colleges are geared toward preparing young adults for the work place and are seen to be an important component of school-to-work efforts (Orr, 1998). By 1993, nearly one half of all school districts had formulated Tech Prep articulation agreements with postsecondary institutions (U.S. Department of Education, 1994). Few of these programs, however, have been subject to comprehensive evaluations. The few that have been conducted show mixed findings regarding effectiveness (Parnell, 1985; Pollard, 1991; Silverberg, 1996; Farmer & Honeycutt, 1999).

This lack of attention to the bridging role of community colleges is reinforced by the inordinate attention given to community college students who transfer to four-year colleges and universities. …