Postsecondary institutions are charged with developing people’s academic skills, technical skills and positioning them for jobs and additional education through high-quality degree programs. Community colleges in particular have a difficult dual mission to train students for work and additional education. Indeed, these institutions can and should do both.
However, community colleges also experience pressure from government agencies to train people for work through short-term, non-credit programs culminating in an industry-recognized certification such as NIMS for machining, AWS for welding and NCCER for construction and sub-trades. Short-term credential programs typically exclude the soft-skills preparation that people need to be successful in the long term in the workplace; so while the industry credential offers initial employment, this position is time-limited.
This has led some community colleges to become addled about their mission. Misunderstanding the phrase “workforce education,” they have developed programs that train students for jobs—but neglect the education component. They’ve resorted to offering substandard higher education, which marginalizes minorities and does not offer the educational opportunities the public has relied on for advancement.
Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research articulates the importance of social skills in the workplace. Employers find that graduates with technical skills and no social-emotional skills are challenging to train and work with. Over time, employers have become frustrated with the lack of education offered by community colleges. They’ve suggested that businesses train graduates on technical skills specific to the industry while colleges focus on social skills. Meanwhile, my own recent research indicates that college faculty also consider students’ soft skills to be important for sustainable employability and growth long term. Given the pressure community colleges face to enroll and quickly complete students, emphasizing the importance of social skills in the workplace needs to be part of all curriculum development and program planning.
Short-term programming that leads to quickly earning employment often appeals to potential students who come from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, thus inviting an equity concern, as these learners especially stand to benefit from developing professional social skills. It’s true that community colleges need to reevaluate the value of an associate degree and the ability of holistic education to help people upgrade their position in society. However, the virtue of earning a degree, regardless of the discipline, is that the material learned and credential conveyed catalyze growth to support sustainable employability, advancement through the employment structure, and a mechanism for lifelong learning.
The movement to create short-term and non-credit programs began to train students with just enough to get a job, while offering colleges significant completion figures. Indeed, those in need of employment could always lean on the community college to advance their standing. In the past, the college maintained its value of educating students holistically, which benefits society and the student. However, this is no longer the case, as those seeking immediate employment are now directed to programs that could be classified as substandard.
This does no favors to the reputations of community colleges, which already must work to overcome stigmas. Community colleges are often viewed as the last resort for many people looking to improve their GPAs or academic self-efficacy, or as a low-risk venue for career exploration. Community colleges are often criticized for their open admission policy and the primitive nature of the education they offer, with some faculty holding less than a terminal degree in their discipline.
Nevertheless, these two-year colleges continue to act as a stepping stone for many on a pathway to earning a bachelor’s degree and beyond. And I don’t believe that all community colleges offer substandard public programs. Many do an excellent job fostering students through a career pathway. These institutions offer stackable credentials so that students can build up layers of education or training. Indeed, some community colleges do not offer short-term programs as an academic program objective, but as continuing and professional education.
Any institution’s willingness to reduce some of its programs to a short-term format culminating in nothing more than an industry certification and excluding social-emotional content should be a concern for the public, and certainly for employers. As society questions the value of higher education, some community colleges are poised to capitalize on this equivocation and suggest that not everybody needs a college education. A community college must serve everyone and at least offer an opportunity to earn a degree. Short-term programs do not support students or employers long term. While earning an industry certification offers completers employment opportunities, those jobs are often static in that the position does not allow for growth. The community’s college must do a better job offering the public an opportunity to earn an equitable, meaningful higher education through appropriate career, technical and workforce education programs, which support sustainable employability, growth through the employment structure and lifelong learning.