Why Aren’t Community Colleges Helping the Unemployed?

It's a community disservice when community colleges say no to reforms that help to retrain the jobless.

(Illustration by Ciara Phelan.)

Massachusetts, like so much of the country, has a “workforce alignment” problem: We have 120,000 job openings here, and 240,000 unemployed people who are unqualified for them. At Raytheon, for example, they’re struggling to find enough electrical engineers, while in the healthcare field, we need more certified phlebotomists (people who draw your blood).

Lately, many of our leaders — Governor Patrick, President Obama, corporate CEOs, think-tank types, and some in the education community — have been proposing that we expand the mission of community colleges to include retraining the jobless so they can take advantage of all these new opportunities. Community colleges need to “become a fully integrated part of the state’s workforce development plan,” Patrick declared during his State of the State address in January. “We need a unified community college system in Massachusetts.”

Sounds like a good idea, actually. Done right, a revamped mission would help both the business community and the unemployed. So why is the proposal being utterly rejected by the community college crowd?
Upon hearing Patrick’s proposals, community college leaders and state legislators immediately threw a tantrum. Wayne Burton, the president of North Shore Community College, told the Boston Business Journal: “Bureaucratization, centralization, central control…in states that have tried that, it has really slowed things down.” Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Community College Council — a faculty and staff union — organized a “Higher Education Lobby” day in March, sending 600 members to the State House to shut down the reform. Not that they needed to. “There is not a problem here that needs to be fixed,”

Representative Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington) told the Recorder newspaper a few days earlier. “I did not feel that a compelling case was made by the administration to support their proposal. I’m looking for more concrete examples.”

Glad you asked, Representative Kulik! Let’s start with a highly critical report the Boston Foundation released last November. The study knocked our community colleges for their inability to train the workforce, and for the fact that all 15 of them act independently of one another: They all have their own presidents, boards of trustees, and separate lines of funding in the state budget. Each community college is like a little fiefdom all unto itself.

The Boston Healthcare Careers Consortium — a group made up of members of the government, educators, and the business community — issued an equally critical report last year. The consortium found that, as things stand now, “students often pursue courses of study at a college that are not totally aligned with an employer’s needs.” So we’re educating students for jobs that might not exist, and not educating them for ones that do exist. And ­actually, we’re not even doing a very good job educating them at all. Recent data from the nonprofit education group Complete College America shows that just 10 percent of students who enrolled in a Massachusetts community college graduated with an associate’s degree — a two-year program — within four years.

Both the consortium and Boston Foundation studies pointed out that there are no statewide standards when it comes to classes, which can make transferring credits to other colleges difficult. ­Remember those open phlebotomy jobs? The consortium report noted that at one community college a student must complete two courses to earn a phlebotomy technician certificate, while at another school, the same certificate requires six courses. Establishing systemwide standards for what students learn in Composition 101, let alone ­Phlebotomy 101, is just common sense. Employers and students need to know what skills are provided by a community college education.

One solution suggested by both the Boston Foundation and Governor Patrick is to put the whole system under the authority of the Board and Commission of Higher Education, which could create universal standards for all classes and make sure funds are distributed in an equitable way to individual schools based on need and performance. (Currently, state legislators send money to individual community colleges rather than funding the system as a whole.) The colleges certainly don’t need to be carbon copies of one another — experimentation should be encouraged — but we should have a system that works like it’s actually a system.

These suggestions — surprise — were met with little enthusiasm. “There are very few individuals that believe that [the Boston Foundation report] is a credible report,” says Mary Fifield, the president of Bunker Hill Community College. In a Globe op-ed, Max Page, vice president of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, an advocacy group composed of students, faculty, and staff, wrote that the Patrick proposal “would tilt the scale [toward] making community colleges little more than publicly funded workforce-training centers for private business.”

The real problem, these folks insist, is that community colleges have for years been underfunded, disrespected, and ignored like a leper at a wedding. And you know what? That’s true. But that may be due partly to the fact that they all act independently of one another, fighting ­individually for scraps. Patrick, though, has promised an extra $10 million in funding, and has asked for another $10 million from businesses, if the reform moves forward. ­(Educators, as you might guess, support the new funding.) As for Page’s concern that the colleges could wind up as merely finishing schools for the local employment base, there’s nothing to prevent a community college system from preparing some students for the workforce, and others for a four-year college. In fact, it’s already being done.

Want an example  of a system that gets it right? Take a look at North Carolina. In 2010 Obama gave a speech at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, praising the school for training workers for a new Caterpillar manufacturing plant. Forsyth Tech, though, serves multiple groups: It provides remedial help for many students not ready for collegiate work; prepares some to work as precision welders at Caterpillar; and educates others so they can transfer to first-rate public colleges like UNC Chapel Hill. North Carolina community colleges are also substantially cheaper­ — tuition and fees for a year are less than half Massachusetts’ rate of $4,000 to $5,500. And though each college has a board of trustees, it still ultimately reports to the state’s central office. In other words: The colleges can serve their local population with targeted programs, but they’re not operating as independent kingdoms.

That’s the true reason community college leaders and lawmakers in Massachusetts are pushing back: They’re going to lose power. Legislators would no longer be able to tweak the state budgets to bring home extra pork. And community colleges would have to report to a higher entity — one that’s not promising mass centralization but simply standardized classes, smarter funding, and oversight of the colleges. When I asked Fifield, the president of Bunker Hill, about her reluctance to embrace reform, she gave an unintentionally insightful answer: “I think it might be viewed as unwieldy,” she said, “and there are people that would lose power and that don’t want to lose power.”

I think Fifield is probably right. There are people who don’t want to lose influence. Like her, for example. And the state legislators. But it shouldn’t be about maintaining old systems of control: It should be about making sure that students, however old they might be, get the kind of education that helps them find jobs. Or, as President Obama said in his State of the Union address: “It is time to turn our unemployment system into a ­re-employment system that puts people to work.”