New report recommends systemic changes to Massachusetts community colleges

Report addresses need to align community college mission, needs of employers in 21st century economy

View the full video from the John LaWare Leadership Forum at which this report was released:
The Case for Community Colleges: Aligning Higher Education and Workforce Needs in   Massachusetts 

BOSTON – The Boston Foundation today released a comprehensive set of recommendations for strategically revamping the Massachusetts community college system to better align it with the needs of a 21st-century workforce. A new report on the system, entitledThe Case for Community Colleges: Aligning Higher Education and Workforce Needs in Massachusetts , was released this morning at a John LaWare Leadership Forum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

The set of recommendations emerged from research by Julian L. Alssid and Melissa Goldberg of the Workforce Strategy Center and John Schneider of MassINC that illustrated the challenges facing the Massachusetts community college system and the features of effective community college systems in other states.

Chancellor Glenn DuBois of the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), which was one of the successful models cited in the report, served as keynote speaker for the forum.

Researchers conducted dozens of interviews with students, industry leaders, employers, community college executives and other state and local officials to compile their shared concerns over the state of the system in the 21st century, knowledge-based economy. They also compiled data and information about the current decentralized governance structure, the campus-by-campus community college funding formula and the economic considerations for aligning workforce needs and the needs of students attending community colleges.

“This report spells out clearly some of the critical needs facing our community colleges at a time when the need for them is greater than ever,” said Paul S. Grogan, President of the Boston Foundation. “There are good programs within the community college system, but the system as a whole is under-resourced, overly fragmented, and not well aligned with the needs of Massachusetts employers in the knowledge economy.”

In the 55 interviews and focus group sessions conducted by Workforce Strategy Center, a number of themes emerged that currently prevent the community college system from being an effective pathway for workforce development.

Issues

Among the issues raised in the interviews:

  •     Lack of alignment among Community Colleges

The researchers noted that almost every interview subject described a major lack of alignment among the community colleges, in areas ranging from course numbering to curriculum, credit status and course content among the 15 schools in the system, making it difficult for students and employers to develop consistent expectations and outcomes for their workers and applicants who attend community colleges.

  •     Fragmentation and the Larger System

The community colleges have failed to connect in a systemic way with prospective workforce, economic development and employer partners, leading to a situation where there is no systemic way to develop curriculum that aligns with the needs of the workforce, and where colleges and community-based organizations are competing, rather than cooperating to gain needed resources.

  •     Lack of Preparation for College-Level Work

Stakeholders across the spectrum noted a large number of students who arrive at community college unprepared to succeed in post-secondary work. This leads to a system where student savings and financial aid are consumed even before students begin their for-credit studies, and where community colleges are focusing a too-great share of their resources on developmental coursework.

  •     Declining Public Investment in Community Colleges

The report notes that from 2004-2009, enrollment in Massachusetts community colleges rose by more than 11 percent in full time equivalent (FTE) terms, while funding was cut by more than 13 percent per FTE. Under the current system, each community college has its own line item, making it difficult to find system-wide efficiencies or effectively take into account variations among the campuses in enrollment, capital needs and labor costs, while providing a more transparent funding formula.

  •     The Challenge of Systemic Reform

While several pilot and campus-based projects have attempted to improve educational and career outcomes for community college graduates, systemic reform targeted specifically at the state’s community colleges remains elusive.  Public higher education reform initiatives often take on all three of the public higher education systems: the five-campus UMass system, the nine-campus public university system, and the 15 community colleges, even though these state universities and community colleges have very different missions, student bodies, funding sources and governance issues.

Report author Julian Alssid, Executive Director of Workforce Strategy Group, noted that these are issues that Massachusetts needs to address immediately to maintain its competitive place in the national economy. “Our interviews here and in other states show Massachusetts has been slow to make changes to its community college system, even as the workforce needs of employers have undergone a major shift,” he said. “If Massachusetts fails to address companies’ workforce needs, it runs the risk of losing businesses and industries to states with better alignment between colleges and employers.”

Recommendations

To address the needs, the report’s authors asked interviewees for their recommendations going forward, and examined best practices from effective systems around the country. From that research, a number of recommendations emerged for a strategic blueprint for a system that effectively leverages the capacity of community colleges to be leaders in meeting the workforce needs of Massachusetts. Among them:

  •  Clarify the mission of community colleges, with a priority on preparing students to meet        critical labor market needs.

Each aspect of the system’s 252-word mission statement is important, but the system must recognize and embrace its role as the link between elementary education and career, whether that means the student is transferring to a four-year college or completing technical education, a certificate program or a career re-training.

  •     Strengthen overall community college system governance and accountability

The current system, where the 15 community college governing boards operate independently from the Board and Commissioner of Higher Education, is not conducive to achieving state and regional workforce development goals. The governing and budgetary authority of the BHE and Commissioner should be expanded, through a fair and transparent formula, to improve system alignment and accountability. In addition, the business community, especially employers, should have a stronger voice on the BHE and community college boards.

  •     Adopt performance metrics

Massachusetts Community Colleges lag the national average in completion rate, but that is just one imperfect measure of success. The report urges closer attention be paid to all aspects of performance, with an annual review highlighting what is working and what needs more attention within the system. Successful programs should be provided with greater autonomy and while those colleges that fail to meet state goals should be subject to greater oversight.

  •     Better prepare students for community college-level work and graduation.

 
Reducing the number of students enrolled in developmental education programs should be a major focus of the strategic blueprint. At the K-12 level, community colleges could partner with schools through programs like the city of Boston’s Success Boston initiative, which is aimed at dramatically increasing the number Boston Public Schools students completing college by providing advising, financial aid support, and mentoring at both the high school and college level.

In addition, tools like the ACCUPLACER assessment and the MCAS could be used to more accurately target and focus on students not ready for college-level work, and community colleges could work with adult education programs, employers, and other community college campuses to ensure consistent class and program requirements that allow working and mid-career students to meet prerequisites and attain their degrees more efficiently.

  •     Stabilize community college funding

Governor Patrick, the Legislature, and key stakeholders need to achieve consensus on a viable funding plan for community colleges.  Currently each of the 15 community colleges has their own line item in the budget.  Consolidating the funding into one line item managed by the Commissioner will increase the ability to find efficiencies in the system and develop a disbursement formula to the colleges that is transparent and fair, as opposed to the budget process that relies upon historic funding levels.  The plan should provide a consistent base of financial support and reward improved performance, primarily in credit bearing and degree programs aligned with industry.

  •     Form a Community College Coalition 

Community colleges cannot transform themselves without support from the broader community and government. It is time to bring together a high-powered leadership coalition to craft a bold strategy to reform the community college system and anchor workforce development efforts for these important institutions. Legislative lessons and ideas should be learned from the 1993 and 2010 education reform campaigns in Massachusetts that linked new investment in education to improving outcomes and greater system accountability.

In addition, business leaders, who serve as “consumers” of the community colleges and count on the colleges to support their own business growth efforts, must be engaged to provide valuable insight, as their success has a direct impact on the state economy.

“This is a critical juncture for the knowledge economy in Massachusetts,” added Grogan. “The research and interviews commissioned by the Foundation found a general consensus that our community colleges are not effectively connecting the needs of their students with the needs of the workforce. If we fail to work together now to realign the system, it is at best a missed opportunity and at worst could be a devastating blow for the entire Massachusetts economy.”

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The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation, with assets of $796 million. In Fiscal Year 2010, the Foundation and its donors made more than $82 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of close to $83 million. The Foundation is made up of some 900 separate charitable funds established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. The Boston Foundation also serves as a major civic leader, provider of information, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to address the community’s and region’s most pressing challenges. For more information about the Boston Foundation, visit www.tbf.org or call 617-338-1700.