The Mismatch Between College Training and Worker Demand

Inside Higher Ed.

Educators, policy makers and the business community are banking on community colleges to prepare the work force for jobs in rapidly growing fields and occupations. The ability of community colleges to perform such a role is increasingly vital, as the ongoing upheaval in labor markets due to trade and technological innovation has far-reaching consequences — affecting income inequality and political alignments, for example. The conventional wisdom for years, however, has been that the community college sector “dances to the rhythms of the labor market, but it rarely keeps very good time,” in the words of Kevin J. Dougherty, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, in The Contradictory College.

So far, research with strong empirical evidence on the topic has been scant. That’s why I embarked on a detailed analysis of California’s labor market and its 115 community college campuses, the nation’s largest public higher education system. My preliminary findings show that the criticism of community colleges regarding their ability to respond to changing markets is, to a certain extent, generally valid. Community colleges do increase certificates and degrees in growing occupations but only at half the pace that those occupations are growing. Equally important, I found that students, rather than college administrations, are responsible for most of that degree expansion.

The problem is that colleges do not offer enough new courses or hire sufficient faculty members for the programs that can define the job destiny of so many students. The solution: more strategic budgeting and better resource allocation.

In my research, I studied 1990-2010 data for individuals and more than 300 occupation groups from the U.S. Census and California’s community colleges. And I found that colleges have a mixed record in matching training with demand for workers. Colleges decreased training in construction and manufacturing much more slowly than the employment in those occupations declined. At the same time, the growth in managerial and professional training programs at community colleges, such as business administration, was far faster than the growth in those jobs.

Over all, the data showed that an occupation whose share of employment grew by one percentage point over the course of a decade saw its portion of degrees and certificates grow by about half that much (0.47 percentage points). The data provide no evidence of increases in course sections or the number of total permanent or adjunct faculty in relevant academic fields, yet there were increases in enrollment. This suggests students are responding to labor market changes while community colleges aren’t. The results are larger class sizes and wait lists — not the best outcome.

Can this change? It has to.

Workers need the right training for jobs. Employers need workers with the required skills. And state legislatures have no appetite for squandering money on the wrong curricula. Academic bureaucracy and politics can be a barrier, but the data also suggest that overcoming these obstacles is possible. In my research, I’ve found that large colleges, for example, are better at responding to employment changes than smaller ones. So despite the political fights that might erupt as some departments shrink and others expand, community colleges can adapt. It’s a demonstrably achievable goal.

Academic administrators have to do it the right way, though. To satisfy stakeholders that they are making rational and transparent changes, they should:

Track more effectively industries and occupations that are growing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides 10-year national employment projections at a detailed occupation level, and many states provide their own. Community college administrators can use such projections to create strategic curriculum plans, and while some already do, many more should.

It’s also useful to look at overall patterns in what types of jobs have grown and shrunk. Technological progress and international trade have shifted demand in favor of occupations that require more face-to-face contact and nonroutine activities that cannot be automated by a computer or robot. As college administrators look to shape their offerings, they should keep such trends in mind.

Improve student supports and create more structured paths in targeted programs. Colleges and states may not have the resources to expand programs and let in new students, but they can put resources into helping currently enrolled students succeed. Emerging research on approaches such as City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, and San Antonio-based Project Quest suggests the combination of more structure and more support can boost completion rates. ASAP helps students earn associate degrees within three years “by providing a range of financial, academic and personal supports.” Project Quest provides intensive financial and personal services and training for in-demand jobs with good wages. Tutoring and mentoring may also help. And career counseling and stronger partnerships with local employers can improve labor market outcomes for students.

The federal government has also expanded its support for structured career pathways, which combine many of these elements in targeted business sectors, and for the development of a body of knowledge about them. A notable example is federal funding for two rounds of Health Profession Opportunity Grants, which support and train low-income individuals for health-related careers. Federal agencies are also building evidence about career pathways through evaluations of both rounds of those grants and the Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education study, which evaluated nine career pathways initiatives. (Abt Associates conducted all three evaluations.) Preliminary results appear promising, so the programs may provide one strategy for how states and schools can move forward.

Allocate resources better. Administrators can do that in two ways. First, they can eliminate courses and programs that prepare students for declining occupations at the same pace that those occupations are shrinking. And vice versa: they should not prepare students for growing occupations at a faster pace than that growth. Over the past 20 years, certificates in cosmetology and barbering have increased significantly, for example, but employment demand has not really changed. At the same time, employment in health-care professions such as nursing aides and medical assistants has skyrocketed, but the number of community college graduates in those fields remained pretty much the same.

Cuts at higher education institutions may be difficult, but they are possible. Several years ago, Indiana State University eliminated or suspended 48 academic programs such as art history, German and journalism, while the University of Southern Maine made cuts in French, geosciences and applied medical sciences. These cuts often are straight economic decisions based on empty seats in classes. That’s the argument that overcomes internal political difficulties, potential layoffs and protests from students and others.

But low enrollment shouldn’t be the main criterion. From a strategic standpoint, colleges should instead focus on the classes and programs where demand is low for employment of graduates in those fields. Some fields with low employment demand still have high student enrollment.

Second, community college administrators should consider course costs when devising the overall curriculum. In most states, community colleges get their funding on a per-pupil basis, independent of whether a student is in an expensive program, such as health or engineering. It might be logical to expect that program expansion would be more related to cost than to labor market trends. But the data I analyzed showed little difference in responsiveness between expensive programs and other programs. Ultimately, programs that operated at a net loss for the college were no more likely to have a strong relationship with the labor market than those that had a net gain. If expensive courses are where job growth is — that’s true for health — expanding such courses will require steep cuts in other departments.

Is California different from the rest of the country? It has the largest community college system and stronger agreements with the public four-year sector than community colleges in other states. But that distinction may have little impact. To see if California was an outlier, I looked at national-level information on community college degrees and certificates from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System at the National Center for Education Statistics. I found that the national trends are similar to those in California. Thus, the lessons learned from California’s colleges are applicable to the rest of the country.

The need to align courses and budgets with careers is clear. So is the path. Now colleges must follow it.