Tuesday, August 05, 2014


Transfer IS Workforcce

“Is that a transfer program or a workforce program?”  “Yes.”

I often hear references -- both on campus and off campus -- to the two major missions of community colleges: transfer and workforce.  In typical usage, the former refers to the gen ed and liberal arts classes intended for students who move on for bachelor’s degrees and higher, and the latter refers to the courses of study that are supposed to be employable with a two-year degree or less.  In this binary, history is “transfer,” and medical billing is “workforce.”

Since the Great Recession, most of the political discussion around community colleges has centered squarely on the “workforce” side.  The idea is that people need jobs, now, and giving them the skills and credentials to get those jobs is urgent.  The rest is nice to have, but all of the interest (and grant funding) is geared towards short-term, stackable credentials with fast payoff.  Address the first rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs now, and the rest can wait.  

I understand the impulse, and I’m happy to support the development of well-designed, stackable programs that meet job-seekers’ needs quickly.  We’ve even developed programs with multiple on- and off-ramps, so people who need to can stop out to make money for a while, and return when they’re able, without losing credits.  It doesn’t fit cleanly into most “performance metrics,” but it’s what many students need.  Someday, I hope the policy folk will catch up and understand that what looks like “churn” can actually be a sign of success.  (If you haven’t seen it, Tressie McMillan Cottom did a great piece last year on exactly that.)

In the meantime, though, I’m concerned that the “transfer” piece is getting short shrift.  

That’s an issue from a purely educational perspective, of course.  But it’s also an issue from a workforce-development perspective.  Simply put, many of the higher-level jobs require bachelor’s degrees or more, and community colleges are the most accessible on-ramp for many students.  In a great many cases, starting at a community college and then transferring makes sense, both economically and educationally. They can get small classes while keeping costs (and debts) down, the better to leave room for other things later.  But in the political discourse, the basic truth that transfer is a form of workforce development gets lost.

I’m guessing that part of the problem is the length of time it takes to see the payoff.  Part of it, too, is a measurement error.  To the extent that we attribute graduates’ salaries to the last institution from which they graduated, transfer feeders won’t get the credit they deserve.  The student who graduates with a bachelor’s in engineering and makes a good salary is attributed to the university; for the community college at which she started, she doesn’t count.  

Taking transfer seriously as a workforce development tool has implications.  For one, it suggests that the classic liberal arts fields shouldn’t be neglected.  Even more “vocational” bachelor’s programs have gen ed requirements; community colleges have offered those forever.  For another, breaking down the conceptual barrier between transfer and workforce will finally allow intelligent discussions of those fields, like social work, in which getting a job requires a higher degree than it used to.  What was conceived as a “workforce” program has become a “transfer” program, albeit with a vocational orientation.  That’s not weird; it’s the direction of many fields.  But it’s hard to make policy around that when we insist on putting programs in one box or the other.

And maybe, ideally, it might make some resources available for the academic core.  That wouldn’t be a bad thing either...

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Your framing would be stronger if your comparison had been engineering is “transfer,” and medical billing is “workforce.”

Stackable also applies to engineering, and replacing medical billing with drafting could help make that clear. I regularly advise engineering students to pick up a drafting/CAD certificate. It can help get part time work in or near their own field and/or do well in an intership, but it is also the case that some majors don't have a formal course in this subject and expect students to pick it up on the side.

Ditto on stackable with stop outs. I recently advised a student whose plan is to go from EMT/EMS to nursing over many years. Criminal justice is another area where entry-level training can provide the job needed while working on the degree required by many police forces. And even a politician could read the requirements for those certificate and AS programs and identify english as a liberal arts class.

PS - You would think that spammers pushing "custom plagiarism" might try to compose a sufficiently coherent comment to prove their alt-ac employees can write.
I'm all for this argument (I rarely disagree with you!). My question about transfers though is how effective are CCs? I worked in a high school for some time and the attitude there was to encourage as many as possible to go to college, with the pressure for 4-year not well masked. The teachers all had their anecdotes that most of their kids who went to CC never ended up transferring out; this was particularly true for the more at-risk populations. This obviously had them worried.

I'm sure the data exist somewhere, but I've never known where to look. I would bet organs that there is a wide variation among CCs but I don't have a clue how we're doing in general. Can anyone point me in that direction?
Anonymous@6:54AM -

I know that our success rate (measured internally because it includes those who transfer before earning an AA or might be part time) is very high for those students who do not need remediation.

Anecdotes are not data.

How did comparable at-risk students do at a 4-year college. If the answer is that there weren't any because they couldn't get in or only got in with an athletic scholarship, the comparison is not valid. Did those teachers know the first semester or first year GPA and % ABC rate for all of their 4-year and 2-year students?
Ah, the old, "the world magically changed completely in 2007 and now the exact same people who were completely hireable in 2007 have no skills yada yada" meme.

So tired of victims being blamed.

@CCPhysicist 10:05AM

I recognize that anecdotes are not data which is why I was asking. I know that some of the teachers were adamant about CC transfers not working, but I had all the same questions you do. And this was only one high school, which also isn't really representative (nor is a single CC), even if they ended up being right (which I don't know, because as I said, all anecdotes).

It's great that your school tracks internally with what most of us would consider the real story (i.e., students leaving before the AA to transfer), but I was asking about larger data/studies across CCs. Does anyone know about where I could find that? It would be great to be able to talk to the teachers with data in hand.

The "undermatching" study cited in the first segment of Dean Dad's Friday (8/7) collection would be one sample to show that preparation matters more than school ranking. I know there are others with a CC focus, but I'm not a policy wonk so I don't keep a bibliography of things I've read.

In my state, high schools can get data on how their graduates do in colleges in the state, but it might be all hand work to sort them by highest math class, AP credit, and/or SAT scores.

In principle, the teachers you talked to should be able to get the data or at least answer the question of whether the students involved are comparable. They usually are not. Half of the students entering a CC need remediation, and none of the ones at a state university are in that category. Honors program and scholarships attract students in the 1250+ SAT territory to our CC, but you don't see very many in that group starting at a CC rather than a university to provide a valid point of comparison.
Hmmmmm. Was there really such a major shift in emphasis in the last few years? It's now been 10 years since I transfered from my local CC to a 'Univ of' school, but I felt like there was if anything a disproportionate emphasis on 'transfer' track courses at my CC.
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