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...