Here's Why Obama's Investing Big In A Community College Idea That's Already Working

"We need to broaden the way we look at education, from just school and workplace, to creating a feedback system with both."

WASHINGTON ― Earlier this year, when President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to make community college free for more students, he also proposed increased funding for career-based education and job training programs.

The $175 million investment, which would fund grants to place 34,000 students into apprenticeships, is another in a series of Obama administration policies geared toward promoting vocational education and career readiness, such as the Community College to Career Fund, which allocates $8 billion to train community college students for jobs in fields such as high-tech manufacturing, clean energy and health care.

The emphasis on initiatives combining education with skills has its roots in municipal-level programs that pair community colleges with local businesses to bring students and potential employers together. The mayors of two cities touted such programs at a Politico event in Washington on Tuesday and argued that existing models for education are not properly tailored for today’s economy.

“We need a new model,” said Greg Fischer (D), the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky. “What we have now is not working at all.”

Fischer criticized career-based education programs tied to what he sees as an antiquated model that emphasizes agricultural industries. Instead, such programs should prepare students for more technical fields, he said.

“Every city has a gap with technologists now,” he said.

As mayor, Fischer has spearheaded partnerships between community colleges and workplaces, such as apprenticeships for students in manufacturing and technical fields, professional development courses that are meant to address community goals, and mentorship programs that pair students with employees working in the fields that they are studying.

“We need to broaden the way we look at education, from just school and workplace, to creating a feedback system with both,” he said.

One such program in Louisville is a mentorship program between community college students and local entrepreneurs. Graduates of the program have gone on to win entrepreneurship competitions and start their own businesses, according to Business First of Louisville, a local business publication.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (D) discussed the benefits of developing education programs in tandem with business leaders. Tennessee is one of only a handful of states with a free community college program, and developing the program involved discussions between state officials and business leaders on what kinds of skills students should possess when applying for jobs.

“There’s got to be a conversation between educators and the business community,” Dean said.

The Obama administration has similarly heralded programs like these. For example, the Community College to Career Fund, proposed in 2012, encourages community colleges to work with local businesses to design courses and teach skills. When developing the proposal, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cited local-level programs and said that "it's really important that this not be driven by us in Washington." The administration has also stressed that these programs will prepare students for "high-tech jobs" in fields such as software development and renewable energy.

Other panelists argued that skills-based education programs could start even before college. They touched on an ongoing debate among education experts concerning whether high schools meet the needs of all students, and how to shift the approach away from solely preparing students for traditional colleges and universities. Critics of the Obama administration's education policies have alleged that controversial programs like Race to the Top, with its emphasis on standardized testing, have steered students away from community colleges and vocational training.  

Panelist Margaret Raymond, who directs the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, characterized these students as being “caught in the middle” between K-12 education and four-year colleges and universities.

Students who would benefit from career-based community college programs do not always enter those programs with the right technical skills, according to another panelist, Karen Mills, a former head of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“Soft skills don’t really have a place in community college,” Mills said.

US President Barack Obama and Jill Biden (2nd R), the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, tour the Michigan Technical Education
US President Barack Obama and Jill Biden (2nd R), the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, tour the Michigan Technical Education Center at Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan on September 9, 2015.

John King, delegated deputy secretary at the Department of Education, suggested that the next frontier in education might involve creating more programs on the K-12 level that are similar to vocational education offered at community colleges. These could appeal to students whose needs are not met by traditional curricula geared toward college readiness.

He recounted one such program he saw at a high school in New York City, in which the required academic subjects are taught in the context of certain occupational fields.

“I was in a classroom where students were learning algebra using roofing,” he said.

Fischer argued that federal officials should look to more of these local programs as they search for solutions to implement on a national level, though in discussing his city’s programs, he conceded that designing effective strategies tailored to individual students and careers is a big challenge.

“It requires attention and granularity, but it’s essential to get done,” Fischer said.

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