July 13, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin, as businesses have been forced to shutter and unemployment has skyrocketed. With COVID regaining its spread in hotspots around the country, more than a million workers per week are still filing new claims. The effects on the economy will linger for years to come. So as Congress works toward the development of its next emergency package, and more to come in the months that follow, how to reinvigorate the economy is at the top of lawmakers’ minds. One area that’s sure to be on the list, with unemployment rolls at an all-time high, is how to get Americans the education they need to get back to work — working in good jobs that pay enough to support their families and bring critical benefits like health insurance and paid leave.
Community colleges are particularly well-positioned to help local job seekers and employers get back on their feet by providing high-quality training programs. These public colleges generally have strong ties to local businesses, experience serving adult learners, and deep roots in their communities. But the challenge is how to design investments in community colleges that leverage their full potential as economic development institutions.
Some have argued for extending the Pell Grant program to very short-term programs — as short as eight weeks. The Pell program is designed to help propel low-income students into middle-class careers through grants to pursue higher education. But while the allure of an 8-week program that leads to a well-paying job is strong, especially for the low-income Americans who receive Pell Grants, the reality is not as rosy. And for Black students, in particular, the risks of diverting into shorter programs that lead to lower-paying jobs than a longer certificate or degree would are significant.
Short-Term Programs Often Have Poor Outcomes
Today’s higher education and job training landscape is already saturated with thousands of short-term programs offered at community, technical, for-profit, and even traditional four-year colleges. Though often longer than eight weeks, most are shorter than a year — many as short as 16 weeks, already covered by Pell. And certificate programs eligible for Pell Grants often show questionable outcomes, raising the question of why it’s reasonable to expect students to receive better training in less than half the time.
The labor market returns of a certificate program are, on average, substantially lower than the returns to an associate degree. While some very-short programs carry more value for graduates, many more have virtually no effect on wages. For instance, a recent study found that whether students graduated from a certificate program or dropped out, on average, they wound up earning the same low wage of less than $10 an hour as a full-time worker. And other research has shown that students’ outcomes are extremely variable across different fields and labor markets. The same has proven true during the pandemic; Americans with some college but no degree have seen unemployment rates in the double digits, substantially higher than unemployment among workers with a bachelor’s degree.
And these outcomes are unequally distributed. Black students enroll in certificate programs rather than higher credential levels at substantially higher rates than white students do, yet see even less value from those programs. In California community college programs, Black women saw no return to short-term programs. Yet over the last several months, Black workers’ rate of unemployment has been higher than that of any other racial/ethnic group, remaining at over 15 percent throughout the pandemic. Opening the door to more low-quality, low-value short-term programs will disproportionately funnel Black students into credentials with the least payoff, leading to jobs that are particularly vulnerable, and prolonging the recovery for those workers.
A Better Way to Support Workers
We need a better strategy to get Americans, particularly those most impacted by COVID-19 and the economic crisis, back to work. Congress shouldn’t pay for just any training and assume it will result in a good job when we know that’s not the case. Instead, we need communities to identify and implement the kinds of training and education programs that make the most sense for their local labor markets. They are the ones who know what programs will lead to good jobs—those that pay a local living wage, provide security, and support advancement—with established and emerging employers.
Community colleges are in the right position to do this well, but they need help. As institutions that lack large endowments and receive a fraction of the funding of other public colleges, they need resources to build the capacity to create stronger relationships with employers and start new programs to support them. To get people into good jobs, we need to support collaborations that will build programs that lead to them and support the employers who provide them. Congress shouldn't simply dole out money to subsidize unproven programs that have no connection to good jobs, leaving Americans unemployed or in low-paying jobs.
The way to support this innovation and collaboration is through a new program modeled after the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program that was created in response to the last recession. The $2 billion TAACCCT program was meant to increase the capacity of community colleges for providing training for good jobs. It was the largest-ever direct, federal investment in community colleges and funded over 200 grants to more than 700 colleges in all 50 states. And it worked. Our research found that students who participated in the TAACCCT program were nearly twice as likely to complete a program or credential and almost 30 percent more likely to see their employment situation improve then comparison students.
It makes sense for Congress to create a new, similar investment to address the fallout from COVID-19. Already, the Department of Labor has put out a solicitation modeled on the TAACCCT grant to distribute the $40 million that was approved in the last appropriations bill. We need more resources for this effort and a focus on how the new programs will connect to good jobs. Our Blueprint for a Federal Investment in Community Colleges lays out how to design this investment based on our research, and bipartisan legislation in the Senate creates a solid foundation for that effort.
An emphasis on developing the capacity of community colleges to connect people to good jobs should be the focus of any investment in education to get people back to work. That’s particularly important for Black students, who are disproportionately enrolled in programs that offer them fewer opportunities, even during a recession in which Black workers’ recovery has been slower and a pandemic in which their health outcomes have been worse. We need to design pathways that connect people back to the labor market — not just throw money at programs we already know will come up short.
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