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Breaking Down Barriers to Empower Technical and Community College Alliances

Holly Zanville, Program Director, Lumina Foundation
International Economic Development Conference (IEDC) 2011 Annual Conference Charlotte Convention Center—Charlotte, NC

Good morning. It’s a great pleasure to join you in Charlotte this morning. You may be wondering what advice a philanthropy organization can offer about breaking down barriers to empower alliances with local technical and community colleges.

Let me begin by indicating that Lumina Foundation does invest in large-scale partnerships around the alignment of higher education with workforce, so we are frequently reviewing developments in this arena. In my time this morning, I’m going to share some of our perspectives about this work, particularly what we view as some exemplary alliances with technical and community colleges. And because we’re primarily about big impact with our investments, I have a big picture perspective to share.

For those of you not familiar with what it is we do and especially why we do what we do, let me provide a bit of background. Lumina is a national foundation with assets of about a billion dollars. We are committed to one cause—enrolling and graduating more students from college—especially low income, students of color, first generation and adult learners. These are students we call “21st Century students”—and they constitute the majority of students who will be seeking higher education in the future.

We are the largest foundation in the United States that focuses exclusively on a higher education mission. And we pursue our mission in a very targeted way. All our energy and resources are focused on achieving one ambitious but specific goal for college attainment, what we call GOAL 2025 or simply the BIG GOAL. By the year 2025, we want 60% of Americans to hold high quality degrees and credentials. Today the national degree attainment rate is hovering just below 40%—where it has hovered for 40 years. Why should we care about this? We believe the facts show that increasing higher education attainment is essential to the nation because without college-level learning, workers won’t have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today’s global economy. I’ve provided a handout for you—the ‘picture’ version of this goal.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2018, 63% of the nation’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. That’s a huge increase since the mid 1970s when less than 30% of jobs required any education beyond high school. The data are not saying everyone will need a baccalaureate degree. But the data are showing that associate degrees, baccalaureate degrees, and certificates that have value in the workforce all will be critical to meeting future workforce needs. So the emerging message is this: in the coming years and decades, fewer and fewer jobs will be available to those who lack some postsecondary education. We increasingly believe that our postsecondary education system is the human capital development system—the talent development system − for the nation.

And if the key to business success is a 21st Century labor force, one with adaptable workers who possess high level skills and relevant knowledge, then a key place—we would argue, the key place − that those skills, that type of knowledge, can best be developed is in well-designed and rigorous postsecondary programs. And that’s why the Big Goal is all about ensuring that many more students enroll in and complete such programs.

Of course, the aim is not merely to push these growing numbers of students through college. Rather the goal is to help all of them achieve high quality degrees and credentials, those that have currency and relevance in the 21st Century workforce—and that lead to gainful employment. This requires tightening the connection between higher education institutions and workforce through stronger alliances, stronger partnerships.

Let me cite six specific areas of important action for strengthening these alliances that our Foundation is investing in right now − and that we hope you all will be involved in if you’re not now, in your locales, be they city, regional, state, or national levels.

First, these alliances should have access to the best data, to make decisions about the programs that are most needed in the technical and community college curricula. There’s some very interesting work by Jobs for the Future (some of you may know them as JFF), that is using new technologies that make it possible—for the first time—to collect up-to-date labor market information. Community colleges already take steps, of course, to address the workforce needs of local employers but their efforts often are hampered by a lack of detailed, up to date information about occupations and skills in demand.

A promising yet still-evolving solution to that problem can be found within the large pool of job openings posted on the Internet. New sophisticated “spidering” and artificial intelligence technologies can aggregate and analyze these online job ads to provide a more comprehensive, “real time” source of information about the hiring and skill needs of local employers. If these approaches are proven accurate and reliable, analyses of online job ads could complement traditional ways that community colleges determine labor market demand for program and course offerings.

The 10 colleges participating in the work Lumina is supporting just began using the new technology this month to supplement their program planning. They include community and technical colleges in New York, Illinois, Texas, Kentucky, California, and Maine.

A second area of action for strengthening alliances is accelerating the time it takes students to achieve a postsecondary degree or credential, and moving students more quickly then to jobs. An example is a partnership in Indiana between Ivy Tech Community College, a group of pilot high schools, and employers − to recruit at-risk youth who have demonstrated the potential to do college-level work but typically have not found their way to college. Students are recruited in their high schools to attend the college’s new Associate Accelerated Program (ASAP), with the goal of completing the Associate degree within 12 months. Various accelerated degrees needed by employers have been developed, and the accelerated program incorporates multiple components to improve student success in college such as early assessment of college readiness, remediation for those who need it through a summer boot camp, fulltime study, a stipend to enable students to reduce their work hours coupled with a full tuition award, a compressed curriculum and a range of support services.

We believe that many more accelerated associate degree programs are needed throughout the U.S., and these should be a targeted strategy of college and workforce alliances.

Another important strategy is to recognize prior learning that is college-creditable. This is especially important for adults returning to college. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), with key partners, the American Council on Education and the College Board—with support from multiple foundations—launched in 2011 a virtual prior learning assessment center called LearningCounts. LearningCounts is assisting students to accelerate time to the college degree by assessing, using and faculty drawn from around the country then recommending college credit for knowledge and skills wherever they have been acquired (in the military, working in corporations, through travel, through home study). The Center is providing comprehensive prior learning assessment resources to a range of users; e.g., individual learners, postsecondary institutions, and employers. Many employers are expressing interest in having their employees receive prior learning assessment to help the complete credentials.

A fourth area for strengthening alliances is aligning specific industry-endorsed skills sets with college curriculum. Our Foundation is supporting The Manufacturing Institute to work with 13 states that are leading efforts to align their educational and career pathways with the NAM-Endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System. This work aims to 1.) increase the number of students who earn a postsecondary credential with value in Advanced Manufacturing career pathways, 2.) map the Advanced Manufacturing educational pathways in the states; 3.) strengthen employer engagement with education; and 4.) build a community of learners among the states to share “best in class” tools to facilitate implementation.

A major challenge encountered in the project’s first year is educating employers about the Skills Certification System. The good news is the project has found that employers are ready and willing to engage; however, the not-so-good news is, employers are frustrated with the education system and its past performance and the lack of understanding of the potential of industry-recognized certifications to reform education and improve the product from the education system. So, employer engagement and engaging strategic leaders across the education, economic development, and workforce development sectors in each of the participating states are primary next steps for this work.

A fifth action in strengthening the alliances between higher education and workforce is “stepped-up” engagement by municipal leaders. We’ve been looking at the promising results from “place-based” partnerships, as a growing number of city leaders are focused on the challenges of low postsecondary completion rates, the large portions of underserved populations concentrated in their cities, and growing recognition of the talent development agenda. While city governments rarely have a direct governance role in local K-12 or higher education systems, municipal leaders can serve as key mobilizers and spokespersons for the postsecondary success agenda by challenging education leaders to improve their systems and collaborate with them on community-wide efforts to reach degree completion goals.

For these reasons, we’re supporting a new Municipal Leadership for Postsecondary Success Initiative of the National League of Cities. This work developing a new resource bank of promising city policies and practices; conducting extensive dissemination of information including Municipal Action Guides for city leaders and reports on the links between higher education attainment and cities’ economic vitality and quality of life; and conducting peer networking and learning opportunities for mayors, their staff and community partners around strategies that support a degree-completion agenda.

The sixth and final example I’d like to share is a promising large-scale alliance of a large higher education system, working to align degree programs with STEM employers, beginning with its community colleges—and later to bring in its universities. The State University of New York (SUNY) is creating SUNY WORKS, a systemwide cooperative education program across its 64 campuses in collaboration with business/industry and regional economic councils. They’re beginning by working with cohorts of students at five campuses per year to develop and implement credit-bearing, paid co-op sites. By 2014, they will have scaled up to 20 community college campuses with fully operational co-op sites, drawing on co-op assignments from an estimated 300 STEM employers in the state. The long-term goal is full SUNY-wide rollout of SUNY WORKS by year 2020.

These then are the types of approaches—alliances—we’re supporting to help strengthen the alignment of workforce with community and technical colleges:

  • developing and using better data (real time data) to make decisions about programs that are most needed in the technical and community college curricula
  • developing accelerated associate degree programs that are aligned with workforce needs
  • making prior learning assessment for adults more widely accessible, and indeed a priority for attention by alliances
  • creating improved on-and off ramps between colleges and workforce by aligning industry-endorsed skills sets with college degree and certificate programs
  • engaging municipal leaders in workforce and postsecondary alliances, and
  • building aligned college and industry programs through innovative curricular and delivery systems such as cooperative education models.

There are, of course, many more than six important strategies we could list for community and technical college alliances with workforce, and we welcome hearing your best ideas.

Let me close with a quick anecdote from a conversation Lumina sponsored last week with some workforce advisors to Governors and other workforce practitioners. One of the folks at the table shared concerns about how we would meet the demand for specialists in emerging fields—like various specialties within software engineering. The view was that the colleges will not have the funds to provide the range of programs that will be needed by employers in the future. The take-away was, the postsecondary system will not be able to do what will be needed on its own, with its own resources—but will need to partner much more closely with employers, perhaps through apprenticeships or other types of employer collaborations with colleges.

This is the context we are likely facing—so the alliances we’ve been talking about this morning will be more and more critical to meeting our future workforce needs.

Kate Snedeker

A series of reports show investing in employee tuition reimbursement yields significant financial payback.
See Talent Investment series