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It’s Time for Congress to Acknowledge That Workforce Training Is Critical Infrastructure

July 26, 2021

The following is from RealClearEducation.

As bipartisan negotiations continue in Washington over a physical infrastructure package, the question should not be whether to follow it up with an investment in “intellectual infrastructure,” but rather how broadly to do so.

The debate comes against the backdrop of a fragile economic recovery, defined by record-high job openings and critical worker shortages. In that light, federal investment in making community college tuition-free for students – which was included in the initial $3.5 trillion budget blueprint from the White House and congressional Democrats – could offer a much-needed boost to the skilled workforce, while making a statement about the essential role career training plays in buttressing a healthy and vibrant economy.

The push for tuition-free community college follows a turbulent year and a half for higher education: the COVID-19 pandemic hurt college enrollment across the board, but two-year colleges have seen particularly acute effects, especially among black and Hispanic students. Community colleges, which focus more directly than others on arming students with the skills needed for the workforce, have also had to grapple with a roller coaster of uncertainty regarding the job markets of the communities they serve.

Even as the job market puts the worst of COVID-19 behind it, reversing the enrollment decline at career-focused colleges warrants an all-hands-on-deck effort because any shortage in the pipeline of workforce-ready graduates looms as a threat to the economic recovery.

For a White House that has emphasized equity and supporting the middle class, addressing community colleges’ challenges has rightfully become a top priority. But even if the administration and Congress successfully negotiate expanded federal support for community colleges, the Build Back Better initiative will fall short of its goals unless it expands the number of career-focused higher education offerings that qualify for federal funding.

Community colleges are popular on both sides of the aisle. They ideally offer a pathway to the middle class for historically underserved groups, along with a steady pipeline of trained graduates to local businesses, in fields ranging from health care to information technology that have struggled to find workers as economies reopen. 

But the hallmarks of community college education – a curriculum focused on training for a specific job or industry and a degree requiring less time and money than the established four-year pathway – can be found in a wider range of higher-education models than traditional community colleges alone. These include private, nonprofit career-education campuses and training programs developed in partnership with individual employers to meet their workforce needs and offer similarly affordable, career-focused postsecondary educational offerings. In many cases, these models produce student outcomes that match or surpass community colleges, yet these schools and their students wouldn’t qualify for financial support under legislative proposals to make community college free.

Doing what’s best for students means not picking winners and losers. That’s why it’s time to shift from an “either/or” to a “both/and” framework for federal support of career and technical education (CTE). Funding should be available to the full range of schools offering short-term, career-focused education, not just a subset. Higher education advocates like College Promise have developed proposals for tuition-free community college that would include a more comprehensive set of postsecondary models. And leveling out federal financial support across higher education models should likewise include a streamlined and expanded set of resources enabling high schoolers to weigh the costs and benefits of each of their postsecondary education options, along with a renewed effort to ensure that students complete the programs in which they enroll.

In the wake of recent bipartisan breakthroughs on the infrastructure package, congressional momentum exists for putting CTE on a level playing field: House and Senate committees are working now in a bipartisan fashion to reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act. And Senator Joe Manchin, the swing vote in the Senate, has already expressed his support for a second legislative package focused on “human infrastructure.” 

There is no shortage of creative ideas for how to provide CTE with greater federal support. Policy analysts and lawmakers have called for the expansion of Pell grants to short-term credential programs and for making such credentials “stackable” – meaning that they can be combined and put toward an associate degree that helps students advance in their career field. Groups like Jobs for the Future also emphasize the importance of building stronger connections between CTE at the high school and college levels.

It’s only by offering students a full continuum of choices for affordable, career-focused higher education – and the tools to decide which option is right for them – that we can fully recognize America’s education-to-workforce pipeline for the critical infrastructure that it is.

By Jeremy Wheaton, president and CEO of ECMC Group

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