The United States relies on community colleges to provide skilled labor. But the schools are sadly underfunded

But these workhorses for developing the workforce face some of their own infrastructure problems.

Pandemic-related falls into enrollment, especially in practical skilled courses, only has made things worse for these long overburdened and underfunded schools. And while Covid’s relief money has served as a gift to financially strained community colleges, administrators say these disposables are running out.

“This is the engine for growth in skilled workers performing these types of jobs,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, economist and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. “[That engine]”Well, it’s splashing.”

Despite these obstacles, many schools are taking innovative approaches to train the workers of tomorrow.

‘Shaken to the core’

There is usually a pattern of community colleges during economic cycles, said Riley Acton, assistant professor of economics at Miami University of Ohio.

“Especially during periods of recession, we are seeing enrollments in community colleges increase” both for high school graduates as well as displaced workers, “she said.

But that did not happen during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has been completely different in this regard,” she said. “We actually saw that enrollment in community colleges dropped significantly.”

From fall 2019 to fall 2021, enrollment in public two-year schools dropped by 14.8%, the highest drop among continuing schools in that period, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In comparison, enrollment in bachelors fell by 4% at public four-year institutions.
Public two-year schools are also at their lowest enrollment level (7.7 million students) in nearly 20 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The largest enrollment declines were seen among men. According to a working paper published last month by Northwestern’s Schanzenbach and Sarah Turner, a professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia, had likely fallen due to the disproportionate disruption that the pandemic had on skilled courses.

While most lecture courses were capable of becoming virtual, it was almost impossible to on-site laboratories and workshops where students learn by working with tools, machines and equipment.

“All the practical courses were dramatically shaken to the core because we could not meet in person,” said Kendall Davis, a welding instructor at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City.

The booming manufacturing sector in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley requires a pipeline of trained workers.  At Blue Ridge Community College, students use the mechanical training system.

Davis said he had an error rate of 72% in the spring of 2020.

When we finally found together, with social distancing and masking, all the lectures and the information we [studied] … they basically forgot all that information, “he said.” I almost had to re-teach lecture courses, and that was something of a learning curve. “

This decline in skilled trades will further disrupt a sector already hungry for workers, Schanzenbach said.

“That pipeline has been disconnected,” she said.

And although some restrictions have been lifted, enrollment has not fully returned. Some administrators attribute this to having to compete with the local job market, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

School presidents have told the AACC that a lot of potential students are heading toward entry-level jobs that now pay much higher salaries, she said.

“If students earn between $ 18 and $ 25 an hour in a start-level position, they are not necessarily likely to come to class,” she said.

If the negative tax and enrollment trends continue, it could lead to a downward spiral for schools that are already “on life support,” said Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

For some community colleges, funding is tied to enrollment, he said. So if enrollment slips, local and state funds may fall, which will result in fewer classes, fewer teachers and fewer services. It could, in turn, further reduce enrollment in schools that not only provide critical career training but also serve a more racially and socio-economically diverse student base, he said.

“In the long run, it’s a very worrying trend for them as individuals and for the nation as a whole,” he said.

Positioning for the future

Ten years ago, the budget at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City was $ 32 million.

“It’s now $ 30 [million], “said Kimberly Beatty, the college’s chancellor.

Rising inflation has made it more challenging to pay for programs, she said.

The $ 70.6 million in pandemic emergency funding provided by the Metropolitan Community College system received was crucial to making repairs, launching programs and attracting staff, she said. But many of these costs are ongoing.

Fortunately, the efforts that Beatty spearheaded five years ago have placed the college in a strong position to educate itself for the infrastructure roles that come online.

MCC consolidated several schools and programs to create learning hubs. This included moving career and technical education to a new state-of-the-art facility closer to the city center, with greater accessibility to bus lines and the public school district.

Students take welding lab courses at the new Advanced Technical Skills Institute at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Missouri.

Advanced Technical Skills Institute has doubled capacity for applications such as welding, and incorporates a range of pandemic- and future-friendly technology efforts such as virtual reality training and outdoor laboratories.

As the pandemic’s emergency aid is pulled down, it’s not immediately clear what additional support could come at the federal level.

President Joe Biden’s plan for tuition-free community colleges hit the slips as this provision was eliminated from the Build Back Better Act, which has now found itself in stasis.

There is optimism among some in Congress that support for community colleges will continue in other ways.

Senator Tim Kaine noted in an interview with CNN Business three recent reintroductions of bills: the JOBS Act, which would extend Pell Grant’s eligibility for students in career and technical education programs; BUILDS Act, which includes provisions linking businesses and schools and curriculum development; and ACCESS to the Career Act, which will include grants to community colleges.

“If you have a stock focus … we will be especially successful in communities that have missed opportunities,” Kaine said.

Community colleges, he said, could serve as the backbone of the country’s critical infrastructure jobs.

Using simulation equipment, a prospective student at Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia attempts to load rocks using a backhoe.

And a potential model is being developed in his home state of Virginia, where the community college system recently partnered with trade organizations and companies to launch the Virginia Infrastructure Academy. The department must coordinate courses across the system’s 23 schools and work closely with industry partners to train workers in areas such as transport, green energy and broadband.

It follows in the footsteps of G3, a low- or modest-income teaching aid program for Virginians to receive labor force training in sought-after areas; and FastForward, a workforce training program with offers lasting 6-12 weeks.

“I think the ‘Great Resignation’ that has gone has really helped people open their eyes and ask questions about what type of career, what type of job satisfies me and makes me feel comfortable. with the choices I’ve made, “said John Downey, president of Blue Ridge Community College Virginia. “And I think when people start reflecting on that, community colleges are in a great position to say, ‘Hi, you can come here and be retrained in the areas that you’re excited about.’

In preparation, Blue Ridge and other community colleges are also trying to meet “wraparound services” – needs such as transportation, housing, food access and childcare – by working with local providers to help reduce potential barriers to enrollment.

“The jobs are here, the education is here,” he said. “What’s challenging is that people have a very hard time stopping what they’re doing long enough to get the training they need to get a better job.”

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