Linking Measures of Quality and Success at Community Colleges to Individual Goals and Customer Needs - Part 2

Linking Measures of Quality and Success at Community colleges to Individual Goals and Customer Needs: May 1999

IV. From the Supply to Demand Side of the Picture

For many reasons-mostly driven by increasing skill requirements within the economy-two-year colleges, over the past two decades, appear to have become the institutions of choice among employers, many of whom have expressed dissatisfaction with the nation's secondary schools. These changes began amid some controversy since many still believed that the trend toward vocational curriculum and greater involvement of industry threatened the historical democratic purpose of the institutions.8 But by the mid-1980s, the accelerated modernization of industry, which required higher levels of technology and increased responsibility from the work force, became the impetus for two-year colleges to delve more deeply into economic development. The value of vocational education to local economic development had been accepted for some time among economists. By the 1960s colleges began adding technical associate degree programs at a rapid pace.

By the 1980s, most states either had added or increased in priority their economic development missions. Whereas employment had always been a goal of vocational education, a new perception was emerging that community colleges were not only suppliers of skilled labor, but also could influence the actions on the demand side, or the employer and workplace. This actually began at the federal level in the early 1960s when the Area Redevelopment Act of 1961 authorized $10 million in federal funds to train workers for the specific needs of an employer and helped legitimate vocational education as an industrial recruitment tool, at least for depressed regions. In 1965, the Appalachian Regional Development Act and Public Works and Economic Development Act allocated substantial funds to area vocational centers, technical institutes, and work force development. Some states, like North and South Carolina, had a system of postsecondary technical institutes to support the recruitment of industry in the 1960s. By the 1970s, customized training for new and expanding industries had become a common part of state incentives for industrial recruitment. Nearly every state established such a program under vocational education-mostly as part of secondary vocational education and generally at area vocational centers (but through community or technical colleges in a few states). In 1980, a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to the American Vocational Association of vocational education and economic development resulted in 17 case studies that described these linkages in some detail.9

Yet despite the attention to customized training, it remained a peripheral function of educational institutions, not part of their core missions. Economic development was not allowed to be included among possible goals at the time the 1981 Vocational Education Study was released. Nevertheless, by the time the Carl Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984 was drafted, economic development gained the legitimacy it sought and was mentioned in the legislation's "Purpose." Administrators were encouraged to design programs to encourage new business growth, prepare the work force for technological change, assist the revitalization of existing industry, and facilitate the reemployment of people displaced by technology.10 The impetus was the parallel crises in American manufacturing brought about by global competition and advancing technology and in American education, as described by A Nation at Risk and a flurry of similar reports. The result was to place more responsibility on high schools (and by inference, classroom time) for basic skills and on postsecondary vocational education for the more advanced technical skills. In a sense, technology had caused industry to outgrow the area vocational centers and their needs to expand beyond well beyond customized and contract training.

A 1986 survey of presidents of 103 community colleges in Appalachia found that 84 percent already solved technical problems for local businesses, 65 percent had partnerships to diffuse technology, 62 percent believed that a clearly defined role in technology diffusion is essential, 55 percent believed that a dedicated office or center is essential.11 In 1987, the American Association of Community Colleges and Tennessee Valley Authority teamed up to hold a National Roundtable on Economic Development to examine and recommend the colleges as "key partners in economic development."12 Three nationwide surveys (1989, 1992, and 1994) found that 90 percent of community colleges offer contract training.13

An increasing number of regional, state, and local plans began to make this goal explicit. A 1989 Report of the Commission on the Future of the North Carolina Community College system identified as one of six strategic challenges to "help business and industry adapt to technological change and promote small business development throughout the state."14 A 1992 report on Southern Workforce Development recommended "that states place a high priority on their historically underfunded and undervalued technical and community colleges and place them at the center of the new workforce development system."15 A 1993 report of the Mississippi Community College Foundation called for changing the statutory mission to strengthen work force development "commensurate with economic development needs" and to establish industrial extension at the colleges to promote technology transfer.16 That same year a strategic plan developed by Oklahoma State University's technical college at Okmulgee named as its number one goal "to expand the institution's role in Oklahoma's economic development." Objectives included fostering "program development on advancing technologies in value-added industries that require and reward technicians and professionals"; expanding "continuing and customized education, contract training, technology deployment-demonstration-assistance and utilization," such as "networks of small- to medium-sized firms to facilitate technology modernization"; and establishing "ongoing relationships with private and public agencies engaged in economic development."17

Table 3

Categories of Activities at Technical Colleges

Gateway to the workplace
  • Rigor, articulated with higher education
  • Comprehensive programs
  • Working with industry
  • Targeting Clusters
  • Educating disadvantaged youth
  • Effective recruitment
Upgrading skills and retraining:
Adapting to technology
  • Customized and contract education
  • Forming training networks
  • Using distance learning
  • Teaching soft technologies/skills
  • Educating managers
  • Training displaced workers
Technology Intermediaries:
Accelerating deployment
  • Technology centers / teaching factories
  • Technical assistance
  • Industry sector hubs
  • Host for technology services
  • New business incubators
Fomenting strategic alliances:
Learning companies and learning
  • Forming alliances with industry
  • Consortia with other colleges
  • Cooperating with development agencies
  • Facilitating intra-firm learning

As the nation's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) was built in the early 1990s, community colleges became leading partners, and in some places lead organizations-a pattern unanticipated when the policy was first authorized in the Omnibus Trade & Competitiveness Act of 1988 and suggested in a strategic plan for the southern states that year as a recommendation to "expand missions of selected community and technical colleges to deploy manufacturing technology to small enterprises."18 As a result, the National Institute for Standards and Technology has formalized relationships with community colleges and the community colleges comprise one of the largest membership segments of the National Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing (NACFAM). By 1995, 90 percent of respondents to a survey of 100 community colleges referenced economic development or modernization services in their mission statement.19 Even colleges that have chosen to remain truer to a more narrowly defined education and training mission are paying more attention to skill upgrading and strengthening their connections to business and industry and accelerating their responses to its technological and workplace demands. A study for the Ford Foundation in 1995 identified eight classes of functions at community colleges that directly supported economic development, shown in Table 2.20

What a specific college actually offers depends on the scope of its mission, the range of its mandate and authority, access to resources, and availability of alternative services. Colleges in areas rich in technological resources are more likely to limit their services to selected niches where they are most competitive. Conversely, colleges in areas with few technological resources assume greater roles and offer more services.

In the 1990s, based on expanding interest among states (and many nations) in the work of Michael Porter21 and others arguing that industry clusters22 are the most appropriate unit of economic analysis and policy, colleges have begun to more formally relate their programs and services to clusters. This new economic development strategy is driving higher education policies in Alabama, New York, and Minnesota, for example, even more towards more economic development in the form of specialized, cluster-related programs and centers at community colleges.23 Though a natural in regions where colleges are already responsive to local industry demands, the concept of economy-driven specialization appears to be contrary to the notion of the comprehensive, student-centered community college.

Many educators and policymakers still contend that expanded missions undermine the social goals of community colleges and that a clear focus on education is essential to achieving excellence.24 But expansion can be defined horizontally, increasing the scale of programs, or vertically, expanding the scope of programs, a distinction rarely made. Whether mission creep adds or subtracts value to the educational process depends largely on how it is integrated. A clear institutional focus on a set of industries or occupations, for example, may actually be enhanced by actively using the expertise developed and experience gained by faculty and students in the larger set of related functions and industry connections to improve the education and expand learning opportunities.

V. Research Questions for Community Colleges

There are a number of ways to organize a research strategy, including around inputs, process, and outcomes, elements of federal legislation, and levels of education. But because I believe that community colleges, perhaps more than any other educational institution, are demand driven, I have chosen as an organizing framework three different demand-based loci of activity, interest, and responsibility:

  • individuals (youth and adults),
  • organizations (institutions and enterprises), and
  • systems (economic and educational).

    These are addressed through various studies that will be outlined in Section V.

1. Individuals

Most of the conclusions drawn about vocational programs in community colleges are based on incomplete information about the goals of those enrolled, based largely on transcript data and number of credits earned in total and/or in discipline. But the value of the program of study to an individual in terms of employment and growth potential and to the labor market is highly dependent on an individual's field of study, previous experience, labor market conditions, and the employer's internal training plans. A licensed profession such as nursing generally requires graduation, but a technical occupation in information technologies may require a set of specific competencies. A student looking for employment with a large employer in a tight labor market-especially if a head of household-may rationally choose to complete his/her education and training within the company. In 1994, the NAVE report termed this a "problem." But perhaps a short-term enrollment is in the best interest of the individual. Given what is now known about the value of informal learning, if the individual is employed in a "learning company," under what conditions is more time in a public institution the better choice? A complete assessment of program outcomes should take into account the entry requirements of the industry, the local economy, and the experience and status-and especially the goals-of the individual.

Why do individuals enroll in the nontransfer programs of community colleges and what are the appropriate outcome measures for various goals?

This is a crucial consideration in the establishment of policies for allocating resources based on outcomes. Surveys indicate that outside of licensed occupations like nursing or electricians, few positions recognize or require Associate's Degrees or Certificates.25 If labor markets do not adequately reward completion of a one- or two-year degree-and there is substantial evidence that they do not in all but licensed occupations-then leaving for employment (and potentially job-related education and training) may be the best economic decision and "program" completion may be an inappropriate measure of success. There should be a way to separate students who make rational decisions to enroll to achieve some market-driven ends and those who enroll to simply explore and test possibilities. For example, a student only "milling around" who ultimately chooses and pursues a career path based on the college experience, might be termed a success regardless of whether it results to completion at that institution. Information that relates student outcomes with labor market demands and requirements and to personal goals and ambitions would provide a more accurate picture of the success of the program.

Who enrolls in the nontransfer programs of community colleges and how do individuals' traits affect outcome measures?

Understanding the needs of the students is essential to formulating federal policies. Most evidence shows that community college vocational students on average are older (late twenties), have much more variability in previous educational attainment (from high school dropout to Ph.D.), and more likely to be working (two thirds with half working full time) than their counter-parts in transfer programs or in universities, most of whom enroll immediately after high school. Little is known about the nature of new enrollment patterns, particularly those resulting from economic changes that attract educated people back to acquire technology-related competencies for career shifts, immigrants to meet skill shortages, and the incumbent work force to upgrade their skills.

Who chooses to continue with further formal education and under what conditions?

One of the criticisms of much of associate of science vocational education is that the courses are not transferable to four-year institutions. Few colleges of engineering at state universities are willing to accept for credit the technical courses in most Associate of Science degree programs. Some blame the research universities for refusing to accept applied sciences but the universities say that the students lack the conceptual skills, particularly in math, to meet graduation requirements. Many community college courses are accepted by other less technical programs at universities or by more applied engineering schools. For example, Mississippi State University School of Education accepts the A.S. degree from Itawamba Community College towards a B.S. but the School of Engineering does not. Are there ways to keep the door open to further education, as Denmark does with its three-year HTX and HHX programs at technical colleges (also common at polytechnics in other European countries), and would that increase the status and respectability of two-year degrees among students? How do community colleges address transfer of credits for vocational programs?

How important is student aid and to whom?

Financial aid is a large part of federal support of higher education and allows many people to attend who might not otherwise have the means. Yet, a recent study at a large urban community college in Florida with a large low-income student body revealed that only a small proportion (13 percent) were receiving Pell grants.26 Nationally, only 15 percent of all students receive any federal grants and 6 percent get federal loans. Who receives student grants or loans, which program enrollments, student groups, and institutions are most influenced by it, and what barriers exist to applying for it?

How do students connect to and learn about labor markets and job opportunities?

Surveys of where employers find new employees indicate that the most new hires are the result of advertisements or referrals. Few companies rate community colleges or high schools very high as sources. In fact, most regions still lack the type of coherent labor market system envisioned in the Workforce Investment Act.27 This suggests weak formal labor market connections at community colleges (and high schools). How, then, do students find employment? Does the college have a formal placement office and how does it operate? Are government supported employment systems effective? Do students have access to informal labor market networks, such as through faculty, friends, or family, and do the colleges enhance those systems? Or, do they now simply rely on ads and the Internet?

What support services are most likely to influence enrollment, retention, and success?

Some local studies of college enrollment and retention suggests that lack of support or infrastructure, such as day care and transportation, prevents attendance and that certain services, including counseling, work-study programs, and assistance with finding and applying for various forms of aid. To what extent do students take advantage of support services and which ones appear to be most effective? Where and how are colleges assuming leadership in Workforce Investment Act one-stop-career centers and how do they serve community college students?

2. Organizations

Since community colleges are part and parcel of their regional economic systems, relationships to other organizations have a major effect on their performance and impacts. Colleges must be responsible to their state governing agencies and boards of trustees, and at the same time be responsive to their customers (individuals and enterprises), labor markets, competitors, and economic forces. Institutional leadership and governance, partnerships, and innovation often determine the effectiveness of community colleges in their regions. In particular, the ways in which colleges relate to local employers can reveal a great deal about the quality and impact of their programs. Better information about these factors would help understand what can be done to strengthen them.

What are the most successful and cost-effective means for addressing basic education and skill deficiencies?

Most students entering community colleges lack the basic skills to perform at the college level and require some additional academic preparation. The High School and Beyond data show that more than three of four students who eventually earn an associate's degree took some remedial courses, and one on four took at least three.28 Texas spends more than $170 million a year on courses for remediation. Since the community colleges have provided open access without the entrance requirements that four-year colleges and universities impose and high schools fail to meet, much of the burden now falls on the community colleges. How effective is remediation in improving both academic and labor market outcomes?

What are the effects of "academic and mission drift?"

Just as the status and image of jobs is pushing student demand towards white-collar careers, image and status is pulling colleges toward baccalaureate level degrees-albeit more applied than those offered in universities-and towards taking on more of the trappings of universities, such as research and development centers. This "academic drift" is evident in the recent plans of two-year colleges to become four-year colleges, such as plans of the two-year colleges Briarcliff on Long Island, New York, and Suomi in Michigan to become four-year colleges. The same trend was the cause of Ireland's Regional Technical Colleges becoming Institutes of Technology last year and some of New Zealand's polytechnics becoming universities. This trend appears somewhat illogical in light of business surveys that express demands for more mid-skilled workers. At the same time, many vocational education advocates, in efforts to attract more funding, are calling for a "K-14" system" that assumes two additional years are required for good jobs. This could have the opposite effect, reducing the status of postsecondary vocational education by turning it into an extension of high school. How widespread is mission drift, what motivates it and to what extent is this trend changing the nature and needs of postsecondary vocational education?

Who are the competitors, what are their niches, and how and when should community colleges respond?

Community colleges, in part because they target the incumbent workforce and businesses, find themselves in competition with a growing private-sector educational establishment. Al-though the colleges often have the advantage of lower costs, the private sector may be more effective at marketing, more selective, and better able to target high-demand occupations and employer key competencies. Who are the competitors, what are their comparative advantages, and how do their outcomes compare to public institutions? In what areas should community colleges compete, where should they concede, and where should they partner? Does competition serve to enhance or diminish the quality of community college programs? The competition includes for profits like the University of Phoenix, corporate colleges like Motorola and Ford, and the fast-growing Internet-based programs, like England's University for Industry. How does the competition affect the decisions of education and training intermediaries like the U.S. Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which now derives a large proportion of its revenue from education and training, or the Workforce Development Boards?

How are federal funds used by community colleges?

This is a straightforward analysis of how the federal funds are used with community colleges and the extent to which they can be traced to meeting special needs, stimulating new investment, improvement, or innovation, and leveraging other resources. Getting the information, however, may not be straightforward. The federal vocational funds that are distributed to community colleges are likely to be much smaller portions of their respective budgets than in secondary school. They are also likely to be used in a greater variety of ways and, therefore, more difficult to isolate. Trying to detect the impact of those funds will be even more difficult.

How do firms view, value, and use colleges?

The labor market outcomes of a vocational education program often depend on its reputation in and perceived value to the business community. Some studies and surveys have suggested that community colleges have not been highly regarded by many employers as sources of training or entry level employees. The added economic value of an associate's degree, according to a recent government report, is far less than the added value of a bachelor's degree and only marginally better than some time in college without the bachelor's degree.29 What differentiates those programs and colleges that are highly regarded from those that are not?

What are the most innovative and effective practices for preparing students for employment in high-performance workplaces?

Some colleges have been particularly innovative in designing programs of study to produce the analytical and interpersonal skills that employers say they want. For example, some colleges effectively mix theory with practice and academic with vocational education and others use systemic approaches that introduce "all aspects of the industry." It would be quite useful to learn how and why these programs came to be and how factors such as institutional leadership, faculty interest, government funding, employer demand, and imitation influenced implementation and how innovation (technological, pedagogical) is supported and rewarded.

3. Systems

Community colleges are not independent institutions or part of a state educational enterprise. They are interdependent elements of a variety of regional social and economic systems and their actions have repercussions throughout the system. Yet they are rarely assessed with respect to impacts on those systems, which would include not only the collective competencies and credentials produced for the labor market, but also the expertise, technology, and access to information they bring to the system. As part of a system, community colleges are subject to external forces and subject to external conditions, and the functions they perform are shaped in part by those conditions. For example, community colleges in rural areas may be expected to provide different functions than colleges in urban areas with a variety of private services and educational institutions. Examining colleges as part of regional economic systems shifts the focus to collective impacts rather than individual outcomes.

What can be learned from international experiences?

There is substantial evidence that a major source of innovation in education comes from experiences in other industrialized nations, which then are tailored to national conditions. Congressional discussions of the Smith-Hughes Act cited the Prussian education as an exemplary model and the early community colleges used the gymnasium as their model. More recently, the United Kingdom's training and enterprise Councils were modeled on U.S. Private Industry Councils and U.S. school-to work programs and skill standards strategies relied heavily on experiences in Denmark and Germany. Most other nations have a post-compulsory vocational education system roughly comparable to that in the U.S., i.e., Further Education Colleges in the United Kingdom, Technical Colleges in Denmark, and Regional Technical Colleges in Italy.30 Some separate credit and noncredit programs between different institutions, some take three years to produce a technically qualified technician or engineer, and many have developed formal problem-solving mechanisms. Therefore, it may prove useful to compare U.S. postsecondary policies to other systems operating in similar economic, if not political, environments.

How do partnerships affect colleges' quality, cost-effectiveness, and impacts and, in particular, what are the effective and appropriate roles for the private sector?

This is an important question because of the historical controversy surrounding business relationships and concerns that they would compromise academic freedom and shift resources away from liberal arts toward occupational courses. Federal legislation values advice from business and requires advisory boards. True partnerships, such as Europe's Social Partnerships, are sporadic and generally the result of local influences and leadership. Colleges that recognize their place with regional economic systems also partner with agencies that have related missions, such as the MEP, small business development centers, and business incubators. Such partnerships and alliances with a variety of organizations are now common among community colleges. Colleges have formal alliances among themselves, such as the three-college alliance in western North Carolina, in which programs are shared or the five-college alliance that comprises the South-western Virginia Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center. Many community colleges have established partnerships with the National Institute for Standards and Technology's Manufacturing Extension Partnership, including as Alabama's, California's, and Wisconsin's community colleges. There is a new and very rapidly growing set of partnerships to offer training and certification for information technology companies such as Cisco and Microsoft. Other colleges have formed linkages with state economic development or technology transfer programs.

How do local circumstances, especially urban or rural locations and economic conditions, and structure of economy, affect resources needs, quality and mix of programs, and outcomes?

The programs, missions, and resource requirements of a particular community college are influenced by local circumstances and needs that include the structure of economy, scale (urban or rural), service area constraints, and degree of independence. Publication No. 6 of the Vocational Education Study analyzed rural conditions and argued that the scale, population density, and structure of economy warrant special consideration in policy.31 A college in a less populated region has both more reason to specialize to take advantage of economies of scale but also greater need to diversify since fewer alternatives for higher education are available. Similarly-but in different ways-conditions in inner cities suggest special considerations. Other than a few minimal set-asides, funds are targeted to individuals', not regions', need.

Should community colleges simply react to labor market and student demands or should they be proactive and try to influence firms' behaviors and students' choices?

The "reactive" colleges survey labor market trends and employer needs and then orient programs towards those trends and needs. The "proactive" colleges anticipate demands and needs based on patterns of technological changes and knowledge of current best practices and then acts as systems integrator and modernizer by providing a work force prepared for the future along with help in making improvements. Colleges historically have been reactive, but the new economy is increasingly looking to colleges to be catalysts for improvement within firms. The relationships to enterprises, expertise, and information that are needed to fill this role effectively, if exploited within the college, can also greatly enhance the quality of education and employment opportunities for students.

In what ways do and should colleges specialize?

Even as colleges are expanding their missions, some states are considering various forms of specialization to achieve economies of scale. Many community colleges have already concentrated resources to establish a specialty, e.g., a chemical processing and pulp and paper center at Alabama Southern Community College, a Hosiery Technology Center at Catawba Valley Community College in North Carolina, a telecommunications center at Springfield Technical Community College in Massachusetts. Other groups of nearby colleges are forming consortia in order to avoid costly duplication and share curricula. Whereas the more conventional way of defining specialization is around occupational clusters, the more useful for local economies and for implementing "all aspects of the industry," may be around industry clusters. In successful industry clusters, a labor force skilled in and familiar with the local industry base and an educational system to sustain are viewed among the most valuable attributes of a region by businesses.

[ Go to ED Home Page ]

This page last modified February 8, 2001 (jer).

Print this page Printable view Send this page Share this page
Last Modified: 10/20/2003