House appropriators on Tuesday heard about the vast challenges community colleges and their students have faced during the pandemic, and lawmakers expressed they are keenly aware that two-year colleges will serve as a lynchpin to the country’s economic recovery.
During a House appropriations subcommittee hearing on increasing investments in community colleges, both sides of the aisle agreed on the value that community colleges provide to students and communities, from offering an affordable, accessible education in a time of rising student debt, to ensuring businesses have the skilled workforce needed to bounce back after the economic slump due to the pandemic. The testifying witnesses also were in sync in their support of community colleges, which prompted education appropriations subcommittee chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) to comment about the consistency in the message.
“Our community colleges are the backbone of our education system,” she said. “It is crucial that we provide them — and their students — with the funding and resources needed to build a brighter and more prosperous future for all Americans.”
The support comes as congressional appropriators prepare to begin work on their proposed funding for federal programs for the next fiscal year. Earlier this month, President Joe Biden released an overview of his proposed budget that would include increases for community colleges, Pell Grant awards and job training programs, including registered apprenticeships.
Tuesday’s hearing covered a wide range of issues on public two-year colleges and their students, including childcare, broadband access, equity, dual enrollment, college transfers and job training, including apprenticeships. Much of the conversation addressed how community colleges can help in post-Covid economic and workforce development.
Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), noted that expanding the $45 million Strengthening Community College Training Grant (SCCTG) Program, created by Congress in 2020, could help both employees and employers.
“The program requires close collaboration with business, but allows grantees to prioritize regional needs,” he said.
The SCCTG program is modeled after the successful $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program, which Congress created in response to the recession after 2008. Its funding expired several years ago, but education and training advocates point to it as a strong workforce development model.
The SCCTG program’s first round of grants showed its potential reach, Bumphus said. The U.S. Labor Department received about 150 applications but could only fund 11 of them.
“The program can both revitalize the economy in the short-term and help provide longer-term training capacity,” Bumphus said in his written testimony, which also included comments on the proposed $12 billion for community college infrastructure investment in the president’s American Jobs Plan.
William Brown, CEO of Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut, said his college is part of a consortium that secured SCCTG funding. He said it includes other public two- and four-year colleges and universities, business and industry, and state agencies, with a focus on training workers for healthcare jobs such as medical coders, medical office assistants, patient-care technicians and certificated nursing assistants.
Expanding the SCCTG program is supported by other organizations, such as New America. An analysis of TAACCCT by the think tank found that students who participated in the programs were significantly more likely to complete their programs and earn credentials, and they had better employment and earnings outcomes, said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of New America’s Center on Education and Labor.
“That is why we believe the timing is right for another large-scale, capacity-building investment in community colleges,” she said.
McCarthy recommended three ways to improve on the program: increase its funding; include a set-aside for state agencies to help them share and scale up successful innovations and to collect better data; and foster better collaboration and information sharing between the U.S. Education and Labor departments.
Other witnesses also gave the appropriations panel their recommendations to include expanding student support services and developing more education-industry partnerships. Kelli Jordan, IBM’s director of career skills and performance, highlighted the company’s successful P-TECH program, which combines traditional high school coursework with a no-cost associate degree and hands-on professional mentoring and workplace experience. Over its 10 years, the program has grown to 162 schools in the U.S., she said.
IBM continues to develop public-private partnerships to advance a skilled workforce, Jordan said. In 2017, the company launched its so-called “new collar” apprenticeship program, focused on fast-growing fields such as cybersecurity and cloud computing. It grew twice as fast as expected in its first year, with companies and colleges seeking information on it, she said.
“Community colleges have proven through their flexibility, reach and willingness to partner in innovative ways that they can be catalysts for more inclusive approaches to skills [development] and education,” Jordan said.
The digital divide
Bumphus emphasized to committee members the digital divide among community colleges and their students. While the pandemic has prompted advancements to improve remote and online learning, many students either cannot afford the technology or live in areas that don’t have the required bandwidth, especially in rural areas. Students who already faced challenges have fallen further behind as a result of the pandemic and its impact, he said.
Bumphus added that professional development is also an important part of online teaching and perhaps an area that hasn’t received as much attention as it needs.
“Effective teaching online is more than putting a camera in a classroom,” he said.
Federal pandemic recovery funding to colleges has been a “silver lining in the Covid cloud,” Bumphus said. The support has served as a “life line” in helping community colleges and their students, for which he thanked Congress. He also thanked the U.S. Education Department for helping colleges decipher how they can use those funds.
A look at transfer issues
Members of the subcommittee also queried witnesses about transfer issues. Bumphus said that in many instances it is either a state policy issue or college and university faculty haven’t agreed on how to develop such programs. He cited the new Equity Transfer Initiative, which aims to increase transfer rates for African American, Hispanic, adult, and first-generation learners. AACC manages the program in partnership with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
In just six months the initiative has increased progress between college and university presidents in this area, Bumphus said.
Related article: Why equity in transfer and why now?
Bumphus also emphasized the association’s position on short-term Pell grants. He said many leaders of AACC-member institutions convey to him that expanding eligibility of Pell grants to high-quality short-term training programs would greatly help them serve students, especially underemployed and unemployed workers, who are eager to return to work. AACC also supports the president’s proposal to increase the Pell Grant maximum award by $400 for the next fiscal year. The maximum grant is scheduled to increase by $150, to $6,495, for the award year that begins July 1.