Workforce Education and Community Colleges

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Somewhere on the halls of LaGuardia’s E building and talking to a few people who have been at the college for over two decades, I learned the history and first few years of the college. Back in the early 70s, LaGuardia was founded as Community College Number Nine and one of its goals was to help high school graduates get skills that would make them marketable to the workforce. Back then, there was a big emphasis on vocational education and in preparing students to get a better job that would eventually result in better financial outcomes. The economy evolved and it was critical to prepare these students to adapt and be successful. While vocational preparation continues to be important, other aspects of education have emerged in the last decades. This post aims to discuss key points made by Mellow and Heelan (2015) about workforce education and how these complement to Hilliard’s (2017) insights on New York’s current approaches to boosting student success beyond high school education.

Back when I was in college, I took a Foundations of Professional Advancement class (CEP121), a pre-internship course that was required for students in my major and which would teach me how to enter the workforce. Designed to help students craft a resume, get interview skills, gain interpersonal skills, work in teams, and other core skills, this course was a primer to help you land the job you wanted once out of college. Did this course make a difference? I think so. It helped me understand what I needed to know as I looked for professional opportunities. But it was only part of my experience.

Higher education is more important than ever. And this is not because it launches your career as an English professor or Accountant; but more importantly, because it offers you the range of experiences to become a critical thinker, a problem solver, and a good citizen. In recalling my experience taking the CEP121 course, I realize that while taking a course designed to help me develop these skills was extremely helpful, it wasn’t just that. I needed to have a deeper understanding about a discipline, connecting themes across courses and integrating knowledge from intro to advanced courses in my major. This coupled with a sustained effort to prepare students for the workforce is what we should aim for, especially in community colleges.

Mellow and Heelan (2015) offer helpful background to understand why community colleges are the institutions at the core of this discussion. Preparing students to be good citizens in today’s evolving society must be a priority but doing so while meeting the needs of an evolving economy and lack of funding for public higher education makes it a big challenge for college presidents. Mellow and Heelan (2015) indicate that community colleges move past their “junior college” status when they started to offer vocational education to students. One important takeaway from Mellow and Heelan is the focus on developing educational experiences that speak directly to the community needs. There is an emphasis on how community colleges are called to foresee these needs and create programs that will educate students in these areas. Here, it is important to realize that while there is a need to educate students to meet the needs of their communities, there is also a need for students to be academically ready to pursue a higher degree especially if they decide transfer to four-year institutions.

It is around academic preparedness where Mellow and Heelan’s (2015) points connect to Hilliard’s (2017). He offers a perspective on how New York has tackled student success especially between high school and college. It is a reality, however, that while high school graduation rates are up, and have historically been steady, college graduation rates have not. The City University of New York (CUNY), he points out, is the choice for 6 out of 10 students when attending college. While CUNY is a large university system with both two and four-year colleges, the complex realities and diversified needs of students makes it even harder to meet their needs. Programs like ASAP have been featured as a model to follow, but they haven’t yet been scaled up to serve more students. One particular aspect that Hilliard (2017) mentions is the advisement support that both high schools and colleges lack. In college, accessing advisement is key to making the right choice and to be sure about what to do next. A student is able to succeed is this support system is enabled when needed. This is more important for at-risk students because they are at the verge of dropping out.

In sum, what these authors presents us is an opportunity to re-discover the importance of workforce education, the role community colleges play in this, and the approaches we need to take if we want to prepare students to be competitive and successful. In order to overcome the problem of the ‘unfulfilled dream’ as coined by Mellow and Heelan (2015), we need to develop programs that stay current with what the field demands, connected to how the community evolves, and effective to ensure that students are meeting the standards the college sets for them. Programs like Bridge to Business at LaGuardia’s College & Career Pathways Institute educate students to obtain a high school diploma while learning concepts in a specific discipline that are generally taught in college classes. This programs aims to move students to a college education and be career-ready. Overall, approaching these challenges with a ‘Student Success Fund’ as Hilliard (2017) recommends can be the way to go. It is incredibly crucial for public education to secure funding for institutions to be able to create, develop, and scale up programs (like ASAP or Bridge to Business) that meet these overarching goals.

References

Degrees of Difficulty: Success in New York City. Tom Hilliard, Center for an Urban Future. December 2017. https://nycfuture.org/research/degrees-of-difficulty

Mellow, G. O., & Heelan, C. M. (2015). Minding the dream: the process and practice of the American community college (2nd ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.