Tackling post-grad success at community colleges

New project of the Aspen Institute and Community College Research Center will work with two-year colleges to improve workforce outcomes.

The Aspen Institute and the Community College Research Center are starting a new project to work with 10 community colleges over three years to improve students’ post-graduation workforce success.

Many community college reform efforts have focused on promoting persistence and completion, as well as ensuring equity in those goals—but there’s been less focus on promoting students’ post-graduation workforce outcomes, said Josh Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute.

The big idea: Many community college credentials still set students up for low-wage jobs. Academic associate degrees, the two groups said, can often leave students unprepared for the workforce if they don’t transfer to a four-year college. Other disciplines, such as those in the helping professions, often lead to jobs that fail to pay a living wage. And students of color are more likely to enter programs that set them up for low-wage work.

“What we’re trying to do is work with colleges that are committed to equity to understand that you can complete students equitably across race, ethnicity, and income lines, and still have deep inequities in their post-graduation success,” Wyner said.

Colleges and organizations have been growing their focus on workforce outcomes and economic mobility, but change has been slow.

Major shifts in the economy have meant that many people are now looking for some form of training beyond high school that is short of a bachelor’s degree. A number of community colleges are creating career-focused, short-term programs and pivoting to serve more as community hubs for social and economic mobility. But how to scale short-term credentials across the sector, while making sure they pay off for graduates, remains a challenge.

“Many institutions are taking active steps to collect post-graduation metrics, such as employment outcomes, earnings data, and employer feedback,” said Brianne McDonough, an associate director at JFF. “But the technology infrastructure to do this with scale simply does not exist for most states and systems.”

The details: Aspen and CCRC are soliciting applications for the project through mid-September, and it will start next year.

As part of the initiative, the groups will work with colleges to establish a local wage or salary line they’d like to meet. They’ll try to grow the proportion of students enrolled in medium- and high-wage career and technical education programs, as well as pre-major transfer degrees, while also growing the share of students of color in those programs. They will work to decrease the total share of students in low-wage career education tracks, or who are undecided.

Advising is likely to play a key role in the project. That can mean making sure students understand that some community college credentials, such as liberal arts associates, are meant to provide transfer credits, not to be terminal degrees. Good advising, Wyner said, might mean asking a student who wants to go into early childhood education—a typically low-wage career—what their motivations and goals are, to see if they might be interested in pursuing teaching, a profession with higher earnings.

Richard Kazis, a national expert on education and a fellow at CRCC, highlighted the value of community college advising in a Work Shift story last month.

“When someone walks in the door, how do you get them into a program that fits their skills, fits their time and resource constraints, and enables them to make good choices and not just take courses because they’re available at 11 o’clock in the morning on Tuesdays?” he said. 

The new project will also aim to strengthen high-value programs by increasing work-based learning, growing relationships with employers, and creating dual enrollment programs with four-year colleges. Program review may happen annually, rather than every few years.

The last word: “We don’t expect that colleges are going to close any programs necessarily,” Wyner said. “The question is, ‘What does the mix look like?’”

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