Community college programs don’t adapt all that well to changes in the labor market, Michel Grosz argues.
Educators, policy makers and the business community are banking on community colleges to prepare the work force for jobs in rapidly growing fields and occupations. The ability of community colleges to perform such a role is increasingly vital, as the ongoing upheaval in labor markets due to trade and technological innovation has far-reaching consequences — affecting income inequality and political alignments, for example. The conventional wisdom for years, however, has been that the community college sector “dances to the rhythms of the labor market, but it rarely keeps very good time,” in the words of Kevin J. Dougherty, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, in The Contradictory College.
So far, research with strong empirical evidence on the topic has been scant. That’s why I embarked on a detailed analysis of California’s labor market and its 115 community college campuses, the nation’s largest public higher education system. My preliminary findings show that the criticism of community colleges regarding their ability to respond to changing markets is, to a certain extent, generally valid. Community colleges do increase certificates and degrees in growing occupations but only at half the pace that those occupations are growing. Equally important, I found that students, rather than college administrations, are responsible for most of that degree expansion.
The problem is that colleges do not offer enough new courses or hire sufficient faculty members for the programs that can define the job destiny of so many students. The solution: more strategic budgeting and better resource allocation.
In my research, I studied 1990-2010 data for individuals and more than 300 occupation groups from the U.S. Census and California’s community colleges. And I found that colleges have a mixed record in matching training with demand for workers. Colleges decreased training in construction and manufacturing much more slowly than the employment in those occupations declined. At the same time, the growth in managerial and professional training programs at community colleges, such as business administration, was far faster than the growth in those jobs.
Over all, the data showed that an occupation whose share of employment grew by one percentage point over the course of a decade saw its portion of degrees and certificates grow by about half that much (0.47 percentage points). The data provide no evidence of increases in course sections or the number of total permanent or adjunct faculty in relevant academic fields, yet there were increases in enrollment. This suggests students are responding to labor market changes while community colleges aren’t. The results are larger class sizes and wait lists — not the best outcome.
Can this change? It has to.
Workers need the right training for jobs. Employers need workers with the required skills. And state legislatures have no appetite for squandering money on the wrong curricula. Academic bureaucracy and politics can be a barrier, but the data also suggest that overcoming these obstacles is possible. In my research, I’ve found that large colleges, for example, are better at responding to employment changes than smaller ones. So despite the political fights that might erupt as some departments shrink and others expand, community colleges can adapt. It’s a demonstrably achievable goal.
Academic administrators have to do it the right way, though. To satisfy stakeholders that they are making rational and transparent changes, they should:
Track more effectively industries and occupations that are growing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides 10-year national employment projections at a detailed occupation level, and many states provide their own. Community college administrators can use such projections to create strategic curriculum plans, and while some already do, many more should.
It’s also useful to look at overall patterns in what types of jobs have grown and shrunk. Technological progress and international trade have shifted demand in favor of occupations that require more face-to-face contact and nonroutine activities that cannot be automated by a computer or robot. As college administrators look to shape their offerings, they should keep such…(continue reading)