To Spur Recovery, Invest in Community College Capacity

Blog Post
Photo by Shubham Sharan on Unsplash
May 4, 2020

The United States has seen an astonishing 30 million Americans file for unemployment in the last six weeks. This unprecedented economic pain will likely result in a permanently altered employment landscape for many people. Once social distancing eases, people will need access to high-quality retraining to connect them to good jobs. The federal government should support the creation of more of these training programs. And now there is a plan to do just that.

Friday, the House Education and Labor Committee introduced their workforce stimulus bill that would replicate and improve on a successful investment from the Great Recession. The Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program was a $2 billion investment in the capacity of community colleges to retrain adult workers. Over four rounds of grant-making from 2011-2014, more than 700 institutions –nearly two-thirds of all community colleges – received a TAACCCT grant as a single grantee or part of a consortium of colleges.

We studied this investment for two years--reading more than 200 final grant evaluations--and our analysis found that students who participated in these programs were twice as likely to complete a program or earn a credential and 30 percent more likely to have positive labor market outcomes than comparison students.

The Community College and Industry Partnership Grants in the new House’s Relaunching America’s Workforce Act (RAWA) has many of the same strengths as TAACCCT and some interesting innovations it did not.

Partnerships. The bill requires that community colleges coordinate with state agencies and industry, which is a good way to strengthen and sustain innovations after the grant is over. In our research on TAACCCT, we found that grants with a strong state role were better at scaling and sustaining initiatives developed using grant funds. The bill also encourages engagement with workforce systems, economic development systems, community based organizations, and four-year colleges, which could help ensure that training supported under this grant is aligned with broader economic recovery efforts and could better connect students to advanced training after completing a program.

Collaboration in administration. The bill places the program in the Department of Labor, which developed expertise on administering this type of program during the TAACCCT grants. It also requires the Department to coordinate with the Department of Education in administering the grant program. This coordination is a good strategy because ED has valuable expertise on community colleges. In our recommendations for another investment in community college capacity, we called for the creation of a new office that would be jointly run by Education and Labor to facilitate this collaboration.

Use of grant funds. The program requires that grantees use at least 15 percent of their funds for student supports. Grantee colleges could use funds for things like emergency grants, connecting students with means tested benefit programs, and providing coaching, advising, and navigating. This is very encouraging because, as we document here, some of the most effective interventions in the TAACCCT program were the use of navigators that helped students get enrolled in the right program, make their way through that program, and connect to the labor market afterwards. Given the current crisis, students need these supports more than ever. There is a long list of required activities for colleges to execute with the remainder of their grant including integrating work based learning, creating articulation agreements, developing a plan to be included on the Eligible Training Provider List, creating credit crosswalks, and building industry partnerships. These are worthy goals, but we found in our research on TAACCCT that grantees that tried to execute too much were not as successful as grantees with a focused scope. If this legislation is enacted in the next stimulus, we suggest that the Department of Labor make it clear in the Solicitation for Grant Applications that they are interested in coherent proposals with achievable scope.

Award size and grant period. The program funding is authorized at $2 billion, the same level as TAACCCT. And the legislation caps the size of the grants at $2.5 million for a single college and $15 million for a consortium. For perspective, the smallest of the 256 TAACCCT grants was $2.2 million to a single college and the largest was $25 million to a consortium of colleges. The caps in the bill are in line with our recommendation that the grants target large single institutions and consortia with grant awards between $10 and $15 million. While the award period is four-years, like the TAACCCT grant program, the legislation allows the Secretary to grant a two year extension. In our research on TAACCCT, we found that the four-year grant period was not long enough to set up a new program and evaluate that program. This flexibility could help ensure stronger programs and evaluation.

It is heartening to see an investment in the capacity of community colleges proposed for the next stimulus. We know that millions of Americans will be struggling to connect to meaningful work in this new reality. Support to help retrain and get back to work in high-quality jobs is exactly the type of investment we need.

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