Post-secondary institutions are tasked with developing people’s academic and technical skills and positioning people for jobs and additional education through quality training. Community Colleges, in particular, have a difficult dual mission of educating students for employment and further education. Indeed, these settings can and should do both.
However, community colleges are also experiencing pressure from government agencies to train people for employment through short-term, no-credit programs that culminate in industry-recognized certification such as NIMS for machining, AWS for welding, and NCCER for construction and sub-trades. Short-term diploma programs typically exclude the soft skills preparation that people need to be successful in the workplace in the long run; so while the industry certification offers a first job, this position is time limited.
This has caused some community colleges to become confused about their mission. Misunderstanding the term “education for the workforce,” they have developed programs that train students for jobs, but neglect the education component. They have resorted to providing substandard higher education, which marginalizes minorities and does not provide the educational opportunities that the public has relied on for advancement.
Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research underscores the importance of social skills in the workplace. Employers find that graduates with technical skills and without 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 have suggested that companies train graduates in technical skills specific to the industry, while colleges focus on social skills. Meanwhile, my own recent research indicates that university faculties also consider students’ soft skills important for sustainable employability and long-term growth. Given the pressures community colleges face to enroll and graduate students quickly, emphasizing the importance of social skills in the workplace should be part of all curriculum development and program planning.
Short-term programming leading to fast work is often attractive to potential students with a low socio-economic background, and thus invites equality concerns, as these students mainly benefit from developing professional social skills. It is true that community colleges need to re-evaluate the value of an associate degree and the ability of holistic education to help people improve their position in society. However, the merit of earning a degree, regardless of discipline, is that the material learned and diplomas transferred catalyze growth in support of sustainable employability, advancement through the employment structure and a lifelong learning mechanism.
The movement to create short-term and no-credit programs began to educate students with just enough to get a job, while offering colleges significant completion rates. Indeed, those who need work can always lean on the community school to improve their position. In the past, the college maintained its value of educating students holistically, which benefits the 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 is not good for the reputation of community colleges, which already have to work to overcome stigma. 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 place for career exploration. Community colleges are often criticized for their open admissions policies and the primitive nature of the education they offer, with some faculties having less than a graduate degree in their field.
Nevertheless, for many, these two-year colleges remain a stepping stone toward earning a bachelor’s degree and beyond. And I don’t believe all community colleges offer substandard public programs. Many do an excellent job of encouraging students through a career path. These institutions offer stackable degrees so that students can build layers of education or training. Indeed, some community colleges do not offer short-term programs as an academic objective, but as continuing and professional education.
Any institution’s willingness to reduce some of its programs to a short-term format that culminates in nothing more than industry certification and the exclusion of socio-emotional content should be of concern to the public, especially employers. As society questions the value of higher education, some community colleges are poised to capitalize on this ambiguity and suggest that not everyone needs a college degree. A community college should serve everyone and at the very least provide the opportunity to earn a degree. Short-term programs do not support students or employers in the long term. While earning industry certification offers opportunities for completers, those jobs often include: static in the sense that the position does not allow for growth. The community school should do a better job by providing the public with an opportunity for equitable, meaningful higher education through appropriate career, technical and vocational training programs that support sustainable employability, growth through the employment structure and lifelong learning.