Read more in the Boston Business Journal here.
The Coalition FOR Community Colleges: Putting Education to Work is an independent statewide coalition of business, civic and community leaders who want community colleges in Massachusetts to prosper and provide successful educational and job opportunities for their students. The Coalition believes community colleges are uniquely positioned to be the crucial bridge between the jobs that exist in our 21st century knowledge economy and the skills required to fill them. It seeks to elevate the role, responsibilities and funding of these vital public institutions of higher education, and supports reforms that will give the key stakeholders in the system the ability to do just that.
The need for strong community colleges has never been more urgent. Massachusetts faces a “skills gap” that has left more than 100,000 jobs unfilled at a time when 240,000 Massachusetts residents are unemployed. The problem lies in the yawning mismatch between the skills necessary to fill these jobs and the training of our residents seeking employment. That gap doesn’t need to exist. Even more concerning is that other states – states that Massachusetts competes with for new business and business expansion – have been far more successful in creating strong community college systems that work with businesses and government to strategically grow their state’s economy. Allowing our community colleges to remain an uncoordinated group of 15 institutions with multiple missions and a lack of strategic focus puts Massachusetts at a competitive disadvantage in appealing to businesses that require an agile, talented and consistent workforce, and it fails to provide our residents with the best possible pathways to the jobs that exist.
For decades, Massachusetts has significantly underfunded public higher education, particularly its community colleges. With his new budget proposal, Gov. Deval Patrick has forcefully decided to change that state of affairs. He has shone a bright light on the critical role community colleges play in our education system, providing certificate and degree programs that can lead directly to the workforce, and preparing other students to transfer to four-year institutions to continue their path to later economic success. The Coalition FOR Community Colleges supports the Governor’s reforms.
By creating a system that is unified under a clear and compelling mission, we can maximize the alignment of the colleges with labor market needs, highlight and build upon best practices from across the 15-campus system, enhance and improve local collaboration with the business and civic community, and ensure that the system as a whole has the resources it needs to provide a quality education to all students.
In summation, the Coalition believes:
- Community colleges are ideally positioned to address the skills gap. It is estimated that 38% of today’s openings require more than a high school diploma but less than an undergraduate degree, a number that will likely grow as the state’s economy continues to expand in areas such as health care, biotech, and innovation technologies.
- When it works well for students, a coordinated system of community colleges provides an accessible gateway to economic success in Massachusetts. According to a recent community college study, a Massachusetts community college degree doubles a person’s annual wages – increasing pay from $21,200 to $42,600. And nine out of 10 community college graduates stay in the state – living, working and contributing to the Massachusetts economy.
- Today’s community colleges lack a coherent, systemic mission, limiting their effectiveness for students and potential employers. While many community colleges have created partnerships with local employers, the 15 individual campuses lack a systemic vision, with each campus largely designing its own programs of study. That makes the system difficult for students to navigate and creates problems for employers seeking qualified workers. Clarity of mission also must be reflected in consistency in operational areas, such as course numbering and degree requirements, which would improve student transfer ability and make it easier for employers to understand the qualifications of community college students and graduates.
- Our community colleges need more resources, but also must be held accountable for their use. Public higher education has suffered from a serious lack of resources in Massachusetts, and community colleges have been hit especially hard. The community college system needs greater investment from the state and business community, but with that investment comes a need for much greater accountability – a consistent set of metrics that goes beyond graduation rates and effectively measures student success both in community college and post-graduation. Colleges that perform well deserve resources to further those missions; those lagging need greater oversight.
- The ideal governance structure combines coordinated statewide strategy and support with local operational control to design curriculum and programs tailored to regional needs. Local decision-making is critical to the success of community colleges – local boards of trustees, with significant business representation, must play a powerful advisory role for college administrators and faculty as they develop specific curricula and programs. But the state Board of Higher Education and the Commissioner of Higher Education are uniquely situated to ensure these programs fit the larger overall mission of community colleges, and that the colleges are integrated into the overall education system.