(This posting is a slightly revised version of an essay that appeared the past few days in Zocalo Public Square and in Time Magazine.)
In the past few weeks, President Obama’s free community college tuition proposal has received a lot of media attention as a strategy for rebuilding the middle class. Even if the president’s initiative does advance in some form, though, it will have little impact on California’s 2.2 million community college students, or on most other community college students around the nation. Community colleges do have the major role in rebuilding the middle class, but their challenges lie beyond tuition.
Today in California, the majority of community college students, and nearly all low-income students, pay few, if any fees. As business columnist Kathleen Pender has detailed, almost half of the state’s community college students receive a waiver on all fees. Federal Pell grants and the American Opportunity Tax Credit, for which low- and even middle-income students are eligible, are additional financial supports. Tuition is not a significant obstacle to enrollment for Californians at all incomes, and hasn’t been for some years.
Instead, at the top of concerns for community college administrators is the low student completion level. The majority of community college students leave without a degree or certificate. A 2010 study by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University Sacramento concluded that within six years of enrollment, only 30 percent of California community students earn an associate or bachelor’s degree. This study finding is consistent with national completion rates, which several estimates have put in the range of 30 to 40 percent.
That low completion rate is rooted in the high number of students who enter community colleges with low math and reading levels. A series of reports over the past decade have found that roughly two-thirds of students enter California community colleges with math and reading levels below those needed to complete college level classes. This gap in basic skills is the main reason students leave without a degree or certificate.
Growth Sector, a Bay Area-based education and job training partnership, has been quietly working since 2008 to address the remediation needs of community college students. At the same time, Growth Sector is addressing the needs of employers by preparing students for jobs in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, especially for engineering technician and related jobs.
Engineering technician jobs, along with jobs such as medical technician, information technology technician, and automotive technician, are distinguished by decent wages (above $15 an hour) and problem solving tasks that cannot be easily automated or off-shored. These “new technician” jobs are part of an emerging middle-class segment of American occupations.
Growth Sector’s main training today is its “Engineering Pathway” through which participants—a mix of veterans, low-income adults, and first-generation college students—earn an associate degree in engineering, and proceed in some cases to a Bachelor of Science in engineering.
The majority of participants start with math and reading levels in the range of seventh to eighth grade, well below college level. They enroll in a yearlong intensive math curriculum, starting at intermediate algebra, and proceeding through geometry, trigonometry, and pre-calculus. “Math is the major barrier to STEM careers, and increasingly to careers in other fields,” Growth Sector’s co-founder and director David Gruber told me.
The Engineering Pathway curriculum is developed and refined by the participating community colleges—four across Northern and Southern California—in close contact with local employers, and Growth Sector. “Early on I learned to start with what the employers needed and work back,” explained Growth Sector’s other co-founder and director, Caz Pereira.
Gruber and Pereira already had decades of education and employment project experience when they founded the organization. By the early 2000s, they had decided that job training needed to shift from training in separate settings, such as community agencies and nonprofits, to mainstream educational institutions, primarily community colleges. “Mainstream institutions have the resources, expertise, and a credential recognized by employers that smaller nonprofits often lack,” Gruber said.
Growth Sector has experimented with different strategies in its remedial math training and has landed on four main approaches:
Learning communities: The 25 participants in each Engineering Pathway cohort take all of their classes together, which Gruber says has surprised him with the value of peer tutoring and support.
Concentrated learning: The math training is accelerated so that students “eat, sleep, and breathe” math, 24 hours a day.
Intensive one-to-one tutoring: Each cohort is assigned a “student support specialist” who closely monitors student progress, helps access tutoring, and helps address personal issues.
Internships: Students are placed in paid internships with engineering, computer science, and research institutions.
None of these approaches is particularly new or dramatic. Most are being tried today at community colleges around the country. But of the students enrolled over the past two years of the Engineering Pathway, almost 65 percent have advanced from intermediate algebra to pre-calculus in one year, and moved on to continuing STEM education. The number of affiliated employers is steadily growing Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley labs, NASA Ames, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are among the organizations now providing work experience for program participants. Gruber maintains that Engineering Pathway’s success demonstrates that “the number of community college students who can master advanced mathematics is considerably more than usual expectations.”
Though Growth Sector is one of California’s best training efforts, it is not alone. Twenty to 30 community college campuses in California are experimenting with innovative remediation efforts and employer partnerships. Going forward, a challenge is how to identify and expand effective work-based remediation efforts in a cost-effective manner.
Any initiative to grow the middle class will consist of numerous elements that go well beyond education and training. Currently, around half of recent college graduates in California and the United States are working in jobs that do not require a college degree; increasing degrees by itself will have a limited impact on income distribution. Further, the jobs projected to have the greatest number of openings in the next decade are ones that require no postsecondary education.
But education and training are one element in any middle-class initiative, and the community colleges are central because of the number of students they educate, their mission of upward mobility, and their universal access. Free community college tuition is not an answer. Instead, the way forward lies in the efforts of local college administrators and individual practitioners, like Gruber and Pereira, experimenting with remediation and job placement projects, building from the ground up.