As the nation, bogged in recession, focuses on job creation and economic growth for relief, attention has turned to education as the key to building a workforce to fill current and future job needs. However, to the surprise of some, much of the discussion involves community colleges, rather than traditional four-year, degree-granting universities and colleges.
The renewed interest in community colleges comes with the realization that many currently unfilled jobs and more coming in the future do not require a traditional college degree. While an increasing number of American jobs require some training and education beyond high school, business and political leaders now agree that not all good jobs demand a four-year degree.
In 2010, President Barack Obama noted that the nation's economic strength depends upon the education and skills of its workers, and that a majority of new jobs will require higher education and workforce training. To meet this need, he set two national goals: by 2020, the United States would once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, and community colleges will produce an additional S million graduates.
To help reach these goals, Obama signed an act that provides $2 billion over four years to fund a Community College and Career Training Initiative. In September 2012, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis announced a second round of $500 million in grants to community colleges to promote skills development and employment opportunities in fields such as health care, advanced manufacturing, engineering and retail business through partnerships between training providers and local employers. In total, 297 schools received grants, administered in coordination with the U.S. Department of Education, as individual applicants or members of community college and university consortia to create affordable training programs that meet local industry needs.
"People will go back to school if the program is affordable, and they have confidence it will lead to a job once they graduate," Solis says. "Over the next decade, nearly half of all job openings nationwide will be for 'middle-skill' jobs. These are positions that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree."
Recession sharpens focus
A study published in 2010 by the Georgetown University, Center for Education and Workforce concluded that by 2018, 63 percent of new jobs would require at least an associate degree.
Community colleges are the focus of such attention for training and re-education because they are so rooted to their localities, so numerous and much more affordable than four-year institutions. There are 1,167 regionally accredited, primarily associate-degree-granting community colleges across the country, and the almost 12 million students enrolled represent 44 percent of all undergraduates in nonprofit higher education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
More than half of community college students are already employed, two-thirds attend part-time, about 45 percent are ethnic minorities, their average age is 28 and 58 percent are women, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.
"What community colleges are being asked to do now is really not that new," says David Baime, senior vice president for advocacy and government relations for the association.
The colleges have long been used to continue educational aspirations or to pick up skills necessary to hang on to an existing job, he says, but have suffered during the recession because of local funding cutbacks.
"A lot of people have become aware of what community colleges do because of the attention we are now getting from policymakers reacting to the Great Recession," he says. "There is now tremendous activity among the colleges because of the added support and some very creative things are happening. …