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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

Community Colleges and Workforce Development in the 21st Century

Wading into the Debate


When Rex’s mother passed away, he was lost. Just eighteen years old and only six days past his high school graduation, he had nowhere to stay and no good prospects for employment. He spent the next three years out of work. Without any real direction in life, he fell into depression and, in the words of a future advisor, he became “borderline suicidal.”1

It was some stroke of luck that he found his way to Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC), a two-year school in his native Martinsville, Virginia. After entering counseling at the behest of program staff, he enrolled in a program specifically designed to train students in food services and culinary arts. Within days, Rex began to open up, becoming visibly more comfortable with his new surroundings. Within weeks, he had found his calling.

He enjoyed cooking—reading recipes, helping others with their dishes, preparing artfully designed and delicious meals. It seemed to give him peace in a way that few things had since his mother’s passing. He quickly developed a newfound comfort and renewed confidence. Rex graduated the program and found employment with a local restaurant. Two years later, he’s still working there as a cook. “I have a job, a nice car,” he said. “I am happy—happy that I’m doing something I enjoy. I am absolutely glad that I did this for myself. I am glad I had this option.”

The program that facilitated Rex’s turnaround is appropriately called HOPE, or High-Demand Occupational Programs for Employment. The partnership between PHCC and the aforementioned local restaurant is one of many that the school has entered into with local employers to help address a pervasive skills gap in Martinsville. This small city in southern Virginia once boasted a textile industry that produced clothing for a national market and employed one in five area workers.2 Globalization was unkind to the region, and nearly 10,000 lost their jobs between 1993 and 2002.3 Now, more than a decade later, the unemployment rate remains the high- est in the state at nearly double the national average.4

What makes the program unique is the direct involvement by local employers. Beginning with a needs assessment, local business leaders work directly with PHCC officials to design curricula that develop skills required to succeed in their industries. The involvement does not stop there. Once classroom work is underway, business leaders periodically teach classes and engage directly with students. This engagement often produces valuable interactions, which can result in full-time employment. While Rhonda Hodges, dean of workforce development at PHCC, is quick to point out that no graduates are guaranteed full-time employment, the 74 percent job placement rate among graduates is impressive, especially given the dire economic backdrop.5

This program is emblematic of the ways in which local community colleges are addressing chronic joblessness to support economic transformation in regions across the country. Community colleges, which enroll 45 percent of all undergraduates in the United States, offer a wide array of developmental curricula—in math, science, English, etc.—and other courses that enable students to develop skills that prepare them for four-year schools.6 But their most socially impactful work is often done in workforce development and job readiness.

Community colleges sit at the nexus of academia, industry, and local government. This privileged position enables them to play a significant role not only in college preparedness, but also in economic development by training a workforce to meet the needs of local industry. Flexible and financially accessible, they have consistently provided an alternative to education at traditional strata. This was up from 48 percent in 1982.7

The external economic conditions combined with internal pressures of perniciously high dropout rates, limited advisory services, and budget cuts at the state and local level have left community colleges in a challenging position, tasked with doing more with less. As of 2011, community colleges received approximately 74 percent of their funding from government sources, with state (16.1 percent) and local governments (28.1 percent) constituting the largest portion of revenue.8 State budget deficits have certainly led to reductions in overall government four-year colleges and, in many instances, have given a leg up to disadvantaged students.

However, economic transformation and the concomitant flight of traditional industries from many areas of the United States placed increasing stress on these schools. The well-publicized shift away from manufacturing in the United States in the latter part of the 20th century left empty factories, large blocks of unemployment, and a workforce unable to meet the evolving needs of new industry.

The Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 compounded many of these issues. The manufacturing flight disproportionately affected those who are already poor, the group from which many community colleges draw their attendees. According to a recent study on the demographics of postsecondary education, 58 percent of community college students in 2006 came from households in the lowest two socioeconomic expenditures, with educational expenditures suffering commensurately. But community colleges have borne a disproportionate share of the brunt: spending per pupil at community colleges was virtually unchanged on an inflation-adjusted basis between 1999 and 2009, while public and private research universities saw their average spending per pupil rise 11 and 31 percent, respectively.9

President Barack Obama has further upped the ante for community colleges, placing them front and center in his administration’s push to improve rates of postsecondary educational attainment. Yet his campaign included few financial resources. The American Graduation Initiative, put forth as part of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009, was initially slated to include $12 billion over ten years for schools to modernize facilities, improve access to educational software, and expand access to fund tuition.10 However, this initiative was pared back in summer 2010—to $2 billion over four years—and scaled down to include only career training.11 This change created a dangerous dichotomy: greater demand for schools, yet with fewer resources to meet it.

But challenges extend beyond increased demand and constrained operating budgets. While there is disagreement about the graduation rates and measurement horizons at many two-year colleges (the National Center for Educational Statistics estimated the completion rate within three years at 31 percent;12 the National Student Clearinghouse puts the figure at 60 percent, though this only looks at students who transfer to four-year schools; 13 and various other studies suggest still other figures and measurement methods), there is no question that many doubt the efficacy of these postsecondary learning institutions. Even for those who earn degrees, it often takes well beyond the two-year time frame to do so. Public opinion about community colleges is varied, though it tends to skew negatively. This is especially true among potential new students, many of whom feel the social stigma surrounding their decision to not attend a traditional four-year school.

Further, advances in the application of technology in the education sector pose a threat to the brick-and- mortar business model employed
by community colleges. MOOCs, or massive open online courseware, offer students a low-cost, at-home alternative to traditional classroom- based learning, and many courses offered are identical to those at community colleges. The convenience associated with this option certainly makes it a compelling choice for students who are also working. The move toward competency-based learning, in which specific skills matter more than traditional degrees, is part of a similar trend.

Each of these challenges alone could spell trouble for the sector. Taken together, these factors have the potential to completely overwhelm an already taxed system in a manner that is bad for students and worse for the struggling regional economies that depend on these schools.

Rex’s example should give many schools hope. PHCC’s program is one of many that seek to proactively address the skills gap that has kept the unemployment rate frustratingly high in recent years. This phenomenon, in which employers have too few applicants with qualifications sufficient to ensure success on the job, has hit areas of economic transition particularly hard. And it’s not just affecting Southside Virginia, but stretching to better-known locations in the Rust Belt.

To address the skills gap, many schools have taken a needs-based approach to develop a special curriculum. Courses are typically created with significant input from local employers. PHCC’s HOPE program leverages partnerships with local businesses (termed Business and Industry Leadership Teams, or BILTs) to write curriculum and develop training programs that facilitate job readiness within a particular industry. While many schools have single industry groups (most often tied to local interests), PHCC has created several across advanced manufacturing, food services, and customer service. These programs provide students with a broad-based academic experience as well as meaningful credentials in a given industry while allowing employers to “road test” potential employees before making a hiring decision.

Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan offers a similar example. Under a partnership with a local employer, GRCC students spend four days a week on the factory floor and one day in the classroom. This apprenticeship model is often a multi-year commitment. Delaware County Community College in Media, Pennsylvania, has done much the same, working with Schramm, a manufacturer and supplier to the hydraulic drill industry, to conduct company-specific processes in their shop classes.14

Regardless of the specific arrangement, the key is that these offerings provide students with hands-on, practical experience in a way that prepares them for the rigors of the daily workforce. This employer-centric approach to curriculum development is not without its critics. Writing in the monthly journal of the American Association of University Professors, journalist David McKay Wilson noted that “at some of the nation’s community colleges, faculty control over curriculum design is threatened by corporations that dictate course material for degree-granting programs.”15 He is not alone in his disapproval, and his claim raises a question about the overall purpose of community colleges. Designed as pathways to higher education rooted in the liberal arts, some fear that community colleges may become “captured” by local industry. The point is part of a broader narrative around compromised academic freedom at many community colleges, where more than two-thirds of faculty members are part-time employees.

In the case of PHCC at least, these concerns do not fall on deaf ears.

“There are certainly those who are skeptical about what we’re doing with programs like HOPE and our business and industry leadership teams,” noted Dr. Angeline Godwin, president of PHCC, in a conversation with the author. “Community colleges serve a wide variety of students with an incredibly diverse set of needs and circumstances. Many students come to us looking for tangible skills that will help them enter the workforce and earn a living wage to support themselves and their families. Integrating local employers’ perspectives into our curriculum is one way in which we can meet their needs and serve the interests of the community overall.” Dr. Godwin added, “We do maintain a top notch developmental curriculum, which is created and administered by our faculty. We view the HOPE program as complementary to our overall offering.”

At the root of this work is a legitimate concern about the role of community colleges in an ever-changing economy. The aforementioned challenges have placed many schools in an incredibly difficult position. Typically, students are older (the average age is twenty-eight) and nearly four in ten are the first in their family to attend college. Moreover, 60 percent of students attend school part-time, creating difficult environments for many to adopt the traditional liberal arts–based curriculum.16 Some students arrive seeking extra credits before starting or finishing at a four-year school; others use two-year schools as a stepping stone to a career. It seems as though their privileged position has actually created a dilemma in which two-year schools now must be all things to all people.

The technological advances presented by MOOCs raise another interesting question about the role that traditional classroom learning will play in the 21st century. While MOOCs have proven popular, especially among those seeking access to top-tier four-year academic institutions (programs offered by Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, to name a few), the overall effectiveness of these tech-enabled classroom environments remains up for debate.

MOOCs are perhaps the most prominent form of competency- based and student-directed learning available today. By allowing students to select a single course, participate in learning online, and gain either a certificate or an outright degree, many MOOCs offer a compelling value proposition to students: Drive your own schedule and determine your own route.

The data, however, demonstrates that this value proposition lacks validity for low-income students, who now make up the majority of enrollees at community colleges. In general, the completion rate at many MOOCs is incredibly low: A January 2014 study from Harvard and MIT indicated that completion rates in their MOOCs were approximately 5 percent.17

It seems that the very services that the MOOCs deem unimportant—direct engagement with faculty, rigorous in-class discussion, and hands-on learning—are the very skills that many low-income students desperately need to succeed in the classroom. This is especially important in the work environments that community colleges have historically attempted to serve. How does a worker gain the skills he or she will need to apply on the job in advanced manufacturing or food services by at- tending a class taught by a professor thousands of miles away?

Community college leaders find themselves in quite a predicament. Global economic changes, increasing budget constraints, and greater demand for higher education have all placed greater stress on these institutions. Furthermore, many are struggling to devise new strategies to confront the changing context in which they operate.

But some basic truths remain that should give proponents of the existing system hope. Communities are in need of jobs—especially those negatively impacted by offshoring and the flight of manufacturing—and community colleges are better positioned than alternatives to deliver on this front. The aforementioned skills gap requires a varied and direct approach; community colleges are especially well equipped to manage this variety. And the biggest opportunity may come from a potential threat: increased attention by the federal government may lead to much needed resources but, more importantly, attention that many schools will need to adopt meaningful change.

Programs like those mentioned above leverage employers for both curriculum and resources; in fact, it seems that the biggest win for all parties involved may be the significant buy-in that these programs generate from the private sector. Though the magnitude is limited at present, concerns around compromising aca- demic freedom appear overblown.

It has to come down to the impact on students like Rex. Despite the debate around the involvement of private sector actors in the delivery of state-funded education, Rex and countless others are realizing tangible benefits that make a positive impact on their lives. And though MOOCs and other “disruptive” technologies may currently be in vogue, the learning with the most immediate impact on students’ lives may actually exist in a more familiar form.


Daniel R. Bowles is a joint MBA-MPP Candidate at the Harvard Business School and John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he is a Zuckerman Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership.


1 Note: A false name has been used to protect Rex’s true identity.
2 Chittum, Matt. “Draped in Prosperity.” Roanoke Times, 17 August 2002.
3 Ibid
4 Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor.
5 Data from Patrick Henry Community College, 2014.
6 American Association of Community Colleges. 2014 Fact Sheet. 2014.
7 Carnevale, Anthony P., and Jeff Strohl. “How Increasing College Access Is Increasing Inequality, And What to Do About It” in Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College, ed. Richard D. Kahlenberg. Century Foundation, 2010,136-137.
8 American Association of Community Colleges, 2014 Fact Sheet.
9 “Leonhardt, David. “Though Enrolling More Poor Students, 2-Year Colleges Get Less of Federal Pie.” New York Times, 22 May 2013.
10 The American Graduation Initiative: Stronger American Skills Through Community Colleges.” Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, 14 July 2009.
11 Building American Skills Through Community Colleges. The White House, February 2014.
12 National Center for Education Statistics. Institutional Retention and Graduation Rates for Undergraduate Students. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, May 2013.
13 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Over 60 Percent of Students Transferring from a Two‐Year College Go on to Complete Four‐Year Degrees.” National Student Clearinghouse, 6 August 2013.
14 Drake, Samantha. “Community Colleges: Where the Workers Are.” University Business, October 2012.
15 Wilson, David McKay. “The Casualties of the Twenty-First Century Community College.” Academe, May-June 2010.
16 American Association of Community Colleges, 2014 Fact Sheet. 17 Ho, Andrew Dean et al. HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses, Fall 2012-Summer 2013. HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1, 21 January 2014.
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