Promoting Educational Advancement and Skill Development through Community Colleges

January 9, 2015
Education, Employment & Wages

Community colleges serve a crucial role in our nation’s system of higher education and post-secondary training. They provide—or have the potential to provide—crucial labor market skills to a wide and diverse set of students. For many, they also provide a pathway to a four-year degree. When the White House announced its America’s College Promise Proposal today—which seeks to make two years of community college free for qualified students—it renewed the ongoing national debate on how to most effectively address the challenges of making post-secondary education more affordable and accessible for a wider segment of the population and, correspondingly, how to prepare individuals and upgrade their skills for the demands of today’s labor market.

In previously released work, The Hamilton Project has emphasized that individuals who obtain college-level education have notably higher earnings than those with lower levels of education. The Project has also highlighted the finding that education can serve as an important path toward social mobility; a college degree can be a path out of poverty and into the middle class for individuals born into low-income families.

Accordingly, The Hamilton Project has commissioned a series of papers in recent years describing opportunities to strengthen community college programs and vocational training, including:

  • Holzer, Harry J. 2014. “Improving Employment Outcomes for Disadvantaged Students.” The Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

    Proposed Policy Approach: To improve earnings prospects for recent graduates and to encourage two- and four-year colleges to be responsive to labor market demand, Holzer proposes that state legislatures implement financial incentives for colleges to steer students toward high wage occupations and to industries with especially high labor needs. While his proposal primarily calls for state-level reforms, Holzer also notes opportunities for the federal government to support states in this initiative.

  • Holzer, Harry J. 2011. “Raising Job Quality and Skills for American Workers: Creating More-Effective Education and Workforce Development Systems in the States.” The Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

    Proposed Policy Approach: Holzer proposes a new set of competitive grants and services from the federal government to states that would fund training partnerships between employers in key industries, education providers, workforce agencies, and intermediaries at the state level. The grants would especially reward the expansion of programs that appear successful when evaluated with randomized controlled trial (RCT) techniques.

  • Jacobson, Louis S., LaLonde, Robert J. and Sullivan, Daniel G. 2011. “Policies to Reduce High-Tenured Displaced Workers’ Earnings Losses Through Retraining.” The Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

    Proposed Policy Approach: Jacobson, LaLonde and Sullivan’s proposal specifically targets the retraining of displaced workers experiencing significant earnings loss and emphasizes shoring up community colleges’ capacity to provide high-quality training, especially during tough economic times.

One aspect of the Administration’s proposal announced today is the creation of a new American Technical Training Fund, which will expand innovative, high-quality technical training programs across the country. Recent Hamilton Project work focusing on the role of technical training in promoting job creation and higher wages includes:

  • Berk, Jillian, McConnell, Sheena and Perez-Johnson, Irma. 2014. “Providing Disadvantaged Workers with Skills to Succeed in the Labor Market.” The Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

    Proposed Policy Approach: Berk, McConnell and Perez-Johnson, argue that Congress should increase funding for the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Adult program. They also recommend that Congress, and the state and local workforce investment boards that administer the WIA Adult program, should explore ways to improve the vocational training available to adult disadvantaged workers. In particular, they encourage policymakers to focus on addressing two concerns about training programs: (1) too many people who start training programs do not complete them, and (2) too many people do not find a job in the occupation for which they are trained. To address these concerns, they recommend experimentation with evidence-based approaches.

  • Lerman, Robert I. 2014. “Expanding Apprenticeship Opportunities in the United States.” The Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.
    Proposed Policy Approach: Lerman proposes a series of targeted initiatives that rely on both state and federal support, including: state governments developing marketing campaigns to persuade employers to create apprenticeship programs, and to build on existing youth apprenticeship programs; and the federal government providing subsidies to encourage take-up of existing vouchers for apprenticeship programs.

Through its provision calling for two years of free community college tuition for qualified students, the White House is exploring a new approach toward expanding the affordability of college for more Americans. This relates to the existing Pell Grant program, which is a leading source of financial support for low-income college students. In 2013, The Hamilton Project released a paper on Pell Grant Program reform:

  • Baum, Sandy, and Scott-Clayton, Judith. 2013. “Redesigning the Pell Grant Program for the Twenty-First Century.” The Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

    Proposed Policy Approach: Baum and Scott-Clayton propose three major structural reforms: augmenting the Pell program’s grant money with tailored guidance and support services that have been shown to improve academic and/or labor-market success; dramatically simplifying the eligibility and application process to ensure that the program reaches those who need it most; and strengthening incentives for student effort and timely completion, without leading the program away from its core need-based (not merit-based) mission.

To learn more about The Hamilton Project’s additional papers on post-secondary education, please click here.