The Massachusetts Community College system is getting some well-deserved attention in Governor Patrick’s State of the Commonwealth address, the recent Boston Foundation report, and various news articles and editorials.
Primary concerns voiced by many are their underperformance and the current mismatch between the skills taught through our state higher education system in general (and community colleges in particular), and the middle-skilled jobs currently unfilled or expected to be available in the coming years.
One clear indicator of the problem is that graduation rates at the state’s community colleges are very low, especially as compared to other systems across the country.
The Boston Globe editorializes that the community college system needs to focus on being a “springboard to a productive career,” preparing students for gainful employment, especially “in an economy where competition for jobs is fierce.”
“Everyone without a job in Massachusetts today is likely to need more education, more training, directly relevant to employment opportunities, before they find one.” With over 240,000 people unemployed in the Commonwealth, community colleges have a very large pool of potential students to help.
The question becomes: what needs to be done to bring the existing system of community colleges in better alignment with the needs of employers in today’s economy?
To start the process, in 2010 Governor Deval Patrick established the “Vision Project” initiative using data to align higher education with workforce needs, with the objectives of:
- Improving college readiness;
- Improving student completion rates;
- Aligning degrees with workforce needs;
- Improving student learning; and
- Decreasing gaps between different groups of students
The Boston Foundation study (The Case for Community Colleges: Aligning Higher Education and Workforce Needs in Massachusetts) developed the following recommendations as a strategic blueprint for “building a system that effectively leverages the capacity of community colleges to be leaders in meeting the workforce needs of Massachusetts”:
- Clarify the mission of community colleges, with a priority on preparing students to meet critical labor market needs.
- Strengthen overall community college system governance and accountability.
- Adopt performance metrics.
- Better prepare students for community college-level work and graduation.
- Stabilize community college funding.
- Form a Community College Coalition.
Now is the time to focus on this critical component of the state’s economic development strategy, by boldly working to reform and strengthen the state’s community college system. We need to make it more accountable and performance driven as a strategic path for workforce development.
In a global economy, education will be the prime differential determining the winners and losers. We can and will rise to the challenges of tomorrow, if we make the right choices today.