Using Past Lessons to Draw a Blueprint for Federal Investment in Community Colleges

Our Blueprint for a Federal Investment in Community Colleges is designed to help craft policy that makes a difference for students and communities.
Blog Post
March 9, 2020

The question is more relevant than ever: What’s a community to do when the economy takes a nosedive? As the Great Recession set in over a decade ago, the Obama administration sought to provide significant capacity-building resources to community colleges across the country, opening the door for new programs and better support services through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program. Over four rounds of grants, $2 billion were granted to community colleges to ensure they had the capacity to support the growing demand for training characteristic of an economic downturn. As it turns out, the ambitious investment seems to have worked.

Over the past two years, our team of researchers has been analyzing the more than 200 final TAACCCT grant evaluations to surface lessons that support policy and practice moving forward. In 2019, our team--in partnership with Bragg & Associates--published a meta-analysis of the TAACCCT program, which produced some very encouraging results. We found that TAACCCT participants were nearly twice as likely to complete their program or earn a credential than comparison students, and participants were nearly 30 percent more likely to either get a job or a wage bump after their TAACCCT program. Given these outcomes, we believe that additional investments in the capacity of community colleges are good and necessary policy.

Building on our research, we have been sharing recommendations with Capitol Hill on how to structure a new investment like TAACCCT to continue to build the capacity of community colleges. And today, we’re publishing our Blueprint for a Federal Investment in Community Colleges, designed to help policymakers craft investments in these institutions that make a real difference for students and the colleges that welcome them.

Our blueprint is being published at a time of renewed interest in such capacity-building investments in community colleges. We are encouraged by a current batch of proposals on Capitol Hill to do just that. The College Affordability Act of 2019 included a grant program for improving the capacity of community colleges to raise retention. The $150 million Strengthening Community Colleges Training Grant in the 2020 appropriations bill also invests in community college capacity. Senators Kaine (D-VA) and Young (R-IN) introduced the Assisting Community Colleges in Educating Skilled Students to Careers Act of 2020 in February, which outlines a grant program to community colleges and states in the same vein as TAACCCT. Leaders on both sides of the aisle are realizing investment in community college capacity shouldn’t just be a one-time event after a recession has already hit.

Some key recommendations in the blueprint include:

  • Award grants to consortia and large single institutions. Single colleges sometimes struggled in TAACCCT to achieve all they set out to do. In consortia, institutions build communities of learning and practice and offer support to one another to get the job done.
  • Get states involved in each and every grant. We recommend 5% off the top of each grant for states to ensure their participation in supporting the sustainability and scale of impactful grant strategies. Furthermore, states must be involved to be sure evaluators have all the labor market data they need to properly evaluate the labor outcomes, which was a mighty struggle for many TAACCCT evaluators.
  • Prioritize student success. Community college students, especially during an economic downturn, are likely staring down a variety of barriers. Using grant funds to provide direct services, such as child care and emergency grants, as well as bolstering strong advising and career guidance makes good policy sense. Our research on navigation in TAACCCT grants suggests that access to the consistent guidance, knowledge, and personal support of navigators factored into students’ ability to persist and move through to graduation.
  • Give grantees a longer implementation and evaluation period. Four years may seem like a lot of time, but it turns out it’s often not long enough to fully implement an ambitious grant agenda and let evaluators analyze participation and outcomes. Four years plus another two years for data collection and evaluation makes more sense. If we’re going to invest heavily in community colleges, we need to allow the time needed to draw all the useful data we can from the experience.

As policymakers consider how best to support colleges’ capacity to serve their communities, we hope to see continued interest in substantial, consistent investment in community college capacity. Our communities and students stand to benefit, in good times and bad.

We are grateful to Lumina Foundation for their support of this work.

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Workforce Development & CTE