Thursday, January 12, 2017

“Placement Colleges”

Ryan Craig has a really puzzling piece in Forbes this week, arguing that community colleges should divest themselves of English departments and instead become “placement colleges,” providing just-in-time training at the behest of employers who may or may not choose to hire graduates.  

It’s a shame, because the term “placement colleges” has a ring to it.  He could have been on to something.  

The core of the piece is a broadside against academics as academics.  Get rid of faculty, and registrars, and degrees: just train people quickly for local jobs and forget the rest.  Become the training arm of the local Workforce Investment Board.

You wouldn’t know it from reading his piece, but most community colleges have active workforce development divisions that generally work closely with WIBs.  Sometimes the programs are for academic credit, but usually not.  Non-credit workforce training is a major part of the community college mission, and has been for years.  Anyone remember the TAACCCT grants? On the credit side, the Perkins program -- unmentioned in Craig’s piece -- exists precisely to fund credit-bearing programs that lead directly to jobs, such as Nursing and automotive tech.  

But that’s not the sum total of what community colleges do, nor should it be.  

On the non-credit side, they also do a lot of Adult Basic Education (ABE).  That covers English for Speakers of Other Languages, as well as adult literacy, math, and high-school equivalency.  The skills taught in ABE aren’t “employer-specific,” but they’re crucial for empowering people to build better lives.  If we relied entirely on “employer-specific” programs, these would die.

Craig dismisses the “transfer” function of community colleges entirely, which is odd.  So many jobs require bachelor’s degrees and higher that transfer IS workforce development.  Nationally, over 40 percent of all bachelor’s degree grads have community college credits on their transcripts; the fact that many of them transfer before completing the Associate’s obscures that number if you don’t look closely.  For example, in the three community colleges in two different states at which I’ve worked, teacher education has been a popular major.  It’s an entirely transfer-based program.  Without community colleges as on-ramps, the ranks of higher degree holders would be substantially thinner, and noticeably whiter.  

Most vocational programs have robust employer advisory boards.  Having been to more than my share of those meetings over the years, I can attest that the top request from employers in every field, every year, is the “soft skills” that Craig writes off as too academic.  If the service tech can’t write up his work the right way, the warranty claim will be denied and the garage will be on the hook for the cost of the repair.  The value of clear and accurate writing isn’t abstract.  Luckily, we have a department full of people trained to help students learn how to write well.

Craig also assumes that employers are large enough to be able to sponsor entire programs, and that they’d be willing to pay “placement fees” to colleges to hire graduates.  In both cases, those are exceptions.

Both nationally and locally, most jobs are with small employers, not big ones.  Our Accounting grads don’t primarily go on to work at Deloitte; most of them go to work in places where they’ll be one of no more than two or three people in their department.  When you prepare people for a field full of small businesses, you can’t rely entirely on any single employer.  You have to prepare students with the skills to start working in any of a host of different places.  Over 90 percent of the employers in Monmouth County have 15 employees or fewer.  In that context, the “last mile” of training, as Craig puts it, has to be done on the job.

Yes, we have a few programs that fit Craig’s criteria, and they’re great.  We have one to train line workers for JCP&L, the local electric utility.  JCP&L pays the tuition and gets to select the people it wants for good, blue-collar jobs.  (Horror of horrors, they even get academic credit!)  When you have a local, large, stable or growing employer with specific needs, you can do that.  Community colleges that do that like to brag about it, and rightly so.  But the ability to provide that kind of partnership is predicated on the strength of the underlying college as a whole.  And those partnerships, as wonderful as they are, will only ever be a small piece of what a community needs.  

And that’s before even addressing the value of education as an end in itself, open to all.  Call me squishy, but I see a positive value in making both training and education available to anyone who wants it.  You never know where talent lies.  

The kernel of truth in Craig’s piece, which he glosses over much too quickly, is a potentially greater focus on “placement” as a piece of student development.  The core issue with “placement” isn’t identifying employer needs; those are fairly clear, and we have channels to make sure that we remain current.  The core issue is helping students identify where they want to be, and what they want to do.  When they can identify their place in the world -- when they have a clear goal -- they’re much more likely to succeed.  Community colleges -- and many other places -- can and should do a better job of that.  On this, we agree.

It can be fun to shock your Mom -- Craig mentions repeatedly that his mother taught at a community college -- and sound daring as you strip away the opportunities for others to eventually write for national magazines.  But there’s too much at stake.  I propose taking the term “placement college” as the piece’s contribution, and building on that.  The rest is, well, academic.