Community colleges are uniquely positioned to partner with industry and credential the workforce.


In 2011 two Harvard colleagues and I published Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century. We argued in the report that, however nice it might be to imagine that all young people were going to graduate high school, attain a four-year college degree, and enter the middle class, the facts simply didn’t support the fantasy. At the time of our report, fewer than one in three young Americans attained a four-year degree by age 25, and of those who did, roughly 40% were working in jobs that didn’t really require such a degree.

These findings raised two big questions: Why should a set of institutions that were effectively serving fewer than a third of high school graduates be setting the curriculum requirements for all high school students? And shouldn’t we be creating multiple pathways not only to high school graduation, but also from high school into the middle-skill labor market?

While overall post-secondary attainment has gradually improved over the past decade, for those from the bottom 40% of the wealth distribution, there has been virtually no progress. If we are waiting for our four-year colleges and universities to solve our economic opportunity and mobility challenges, it will be a very long wait indeed.

The good news is that, because of an increasingly tight labor market and growing pressure to diversify their workforce, major employers, especially in the IT sector, are beginning to drop bachelor’s degree requirements for jobs that don’t really require such degrees and are moving toward skills-based hiring. One of the leaders in this movement is IBM, which in the space of five years has dropped the percentage of job postings with a bachelor’s degree requirement from 90% to below 50%. Another leader in this movement has been Accenture, which in addition to substantially reducing the number of its jobs requiring four-year degrees, has proactively co-led an initiative, beginning in Chicago and now expanding to other cities, that pays students while in community college through an apprenticeship model for jobs that were hitherto filled by those with four-year degrees.

Recent research from the Burning Glass Institute found that between 2017 and 2019, 46% of middle-skill jobs experienced “degree resets,” a lowering of degree requirements. This comes after a long period of degree inflation, a practice documented by earlier research from Burning Glass and Harvard Business School.

“While some of these needs can be met by community-based training providers or IT boot camps, it’s really community and technical colleges that need to step up to meet this demand.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified this move toward skills-based hiring, shifting the attention of employers to education and training providers that prepare students with shorter-term occupational credentials—e.g., apprenticeship and industry certifications, post-secondary certificates, and associate degrees—aligned with regional labor market needs.

While some of these needs can be met by community-based training providers or IT boot camps, it’s really community and technical colleges that need to step up to meet this demand. They serve both young people and adults most in need of career preparation; they are low-cost and open access; they are within commuting distance for all but the most rural communities; and they represent by far the largest public investment in infrastructure devoted to providing skills and credentials for those who most need them to get on a path to economic self-sufficiency.

The Role of Community Colleges

I have only recently come to appreciate the critical role community colleges can play in regional education-to-career development programs for young people. In 2012, in response to the interest generated by our Pathways to Prosperityreport, I partnered with my colleagues at Jobs for the Future (a Boston-based national intermediary organization) to form the Pathways to Prosperity Network. Our work focuses on helping our network partners—cities, metro regions, and states—create seamless systems that span grades 9 to 14 and enable students to get started in fields like IT, health care, and advanced manufacturing—fields where there are good technician-level jobs that clearly require education beyond high school but not necessarily a four-year degree. Our mantra has been to help all students attain “a first postsecondary credential with value in the labor market, without foreclosing the opportunity to get more education when ready.”

While we are proud of the work that the best of our network members have accomplished—see, for example, this report on Delaware Pathways—we have not solved the problem that has bedeviled virtually all organizations that have been working in the career academies and career pathways space: the work is too supply-driven. If the ultimate goal is employment, not simply high school reform, then employers must become full partners in program design and implementation, and the education institutions that must move to the center are community and technical colleges, not high schools. They sit between high schools on the one side and employers on the other, and employers are much likelier to engage with institutions whose students are closer to the point of entry into the labor market.

“At their best, community colleges are the most nimble, flexible, market-oriented institutions in our higher education system, working closely with employers to meet regional labor market demands.”

As pressure has grown over the past decade to address the rising income and wealth gaps in this country, public- and private-sector leaders have looked increasingly to the role that America’s 1,100 community and technical colleges might play in providing low-income young people and adults with the skills and credentials needed to put them on a path to economic advancement. At their best, community colleges are the most nimble, flexible, market-oriented institutions in our higher education system, working closely with employers to meet regional labor market demands.

My reason for using the qualifier “at their best” in describing the role community colleges can play in their regional economies is that they are multipurpose institutions with multiple missions: they serve 18-year-olds seeking a low-cost way to get the first two years of a four-year degree, adults seeking basic literacy skills, workers whose jobs have disappeared and who need re-skilling, and retirees seeking avocational learning opportunities. They are asked to serve these various constituencies on budgets that are typically substantially lower than those of regional four-year public colleges—in fact, a 2020 report from the Center for American Progress estimates that this funding gap is about $78 billion nationally.

While it is difficult to generalize about the nation’s 1,100 community colleges, there are significant regional differences. In the South, for example, most community colleges came into being in the 1950s and 1960s when governors and legislative leaders were trying to play economic catch-up. While they could offer attractive tax advantages and right-to-work laws to persuade Northern companies to relocate, they needed an answer to concerns company leaders raised about the quality of their education systems. Southern community colleges, by and large, were created to address this concern. Consequently, they are not confused about their primary mission.

In other regions of the country, community colleges often began as junior colleges, sometimes under the auspices of school districts, usually with a focus on the trades and office skills. But they ultimately morphed into institutions focused mainly on providing the first two years of a four-year degree. In most states, transferring students to four-year colleges continues to take priority.

Why is this a problem? If most students who chose a transfer program successfully completed the program and went on to attain a bachelor’s degree, it wouldn’t be a problem at all. The reality, however, is that of the 80% of entering community college freshmen who say their goal is a four-year degree, fewer than 15% have attained such a degree six years later. Compounding the problem, over 40% of two-year degrees are in liberal arts or general studies, degrees that typically have relatively little value in the labor market unless they lead to the completion of a bachelor’s degree.

A Case Study in Employer Collaboration

My colleagues and I at the Harvard Project on Workforce are currently engaged in a modest initiative designed to address one aspect of this problem. We have just completed detailed case studies of five community colleges in diverse regions that in our view do an exemplary job of prioritizing workforce development across the institution and have positioned themselves as go-to training providers for leading industries in their region. The colleges are: Lorain County (OH), Mississippi Gulf Coast, Northern Virginia, Pima (AZ), and San Jacinto (TX).

What are the internal policies and practices that enable these five colleges to position themselves as central players in their regional economic and workforce development ecosystems? Let’s take Pima Community College, for example, in Southern Arizona. Pima is the only community college in Greater Tucson, a region with over a million residents. It serves over 30,000 students spread over five campuses. Its students are mostly working learners (77%), and about 45% are Hispanic. In 2021, it granted slightly more certificates than associate degrees.

When Lee Lambert was recruited from Shoreline Community College (WA) to become Chancellor in 2013, Pima was in trouble. The regional accrediting association had placed it on probation for a variety of fiscal and educational problems. A combination of reductions in state funding and enrollment declines had led to a fiscal crisis demanding radical action. Lambert quickly learned from his initial conversations with business leaders that they found it difficult to collaborate with the college.

Lambert introduced sweeping administrative reforms. He closed one of what had been six campuses and sold off its buildings. Each campus had formerly had its own president and administrative hierarchy, but Lambert consolidated administrative structures so that today there is one president to whom the five campuses report. Today there is also a single point of contact for the employer community, Vice President for Workforce Development and Strategic Partnerships, Ian Roark.

While these moves generated some initial pushback and resistance, today Pima is a very different institution. In close consultation with industry leaders, over the last five years Pima has developed Centers of Excellence in Applied Technology, IT/Cybersecurity, Health Professions, Hospitality and Tourism, and Arts and Humanities. The Centers integrate workforce development across credit and non-credit programs, including industry certifications; offer cutting-edge facilities and technology to enable experiential learning; and provide a focal point for collaboration across sectors. These Centers are designed both to meet industry needs and provide great learning opportunities for students.

At Pima, like many colleges, the workforce division was expected to raise its own revenue by generating short-term training contracts with companies to upgrade the skills of incumbent workers. Lambert and Roark decided that workforce development needed to permeate the college and not be siloed into a separate self-supporting division. Today Roark heads a department with over 100 staff fully supported by the College, working internally to connect faculty to emerging industry partnership opportunities and working externally to build and sustain relationships with regional economic development organizations, industry associations, and government leaders. As one industry leader told our case writer, “Pima is everywhere.”

Policy Recommendations

If states want to incentivize community college systems to prioritize marketable skill development and collaboration with area employers, policymakers should look first to their accountability and funding policies. We believe state government leaders should hold colleges accountable for the labor market outcomes of their graduates—both certificate- and degree-holders. In return, however, states should be willing to fund short-term workforce programs and revise funding formulas to reflect the differential costs of mounting workforce programs.

State policymakers should also scan the landscape to identify successful policies that work in other states that could be in their own state. For example, Massachusetts for 25 years supported a program called “connecting activities,” which provides funding through the Department of Education to the state’s network of Workforce Development Boards to support internships and other forms of work-based learning for high school students. The state funding provides infrastructure support, and in return, employers pay students’ wages. The initiative is designed to “connect” students to workplaces and has enabled thousands of students annually to get significant career exposure and paid work experience while in school.

“To reserve the term ‘college’ for four-year institutions is to demean the accomplishments of the young people and adults who manage, often under extremely challenging circumstances, to attain a credential that can enable them to move up the economic ladder. Why not acknowledge that we have two kinds of colleges, and that both can be life-changing for their students?”

A second, more systemic example comes from the state of Washington. In launching its ambitious statewide “Career-Connected Learning” initiative a few years ago, the state sponsored two grant competitions in each of its ten regions. One competition focused on identifying a lead intermediary organization for the region that had the experience and capacity to bring together the key organizations across sectors—business, government, education, nonprofits—to fashion a regional career pathways strategy and support its implementation. The second competition focused on supporting organizations to create new apprenticeship or other “career launch” programs, or to expand existing ones. This program was specifically aimed at incentivizing industry associations to partner with community colleges or other providers in new program development. Both grant competitions were funded by a combination of state and federal dollars.

At the federal level, policymakers will need to incentivize employer associations to get in the game of talent development if the nation is to move toward a more demand-driven education and training system. The Departments of Education and Labor should evaluate existing programs funded under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and Perkins to ask how they can strengthen the role of employers in these programs. In new programs offered by either agency focused on industry-education partnerships, employers should be in the driver’s seat. The Biden administration has recently launched two major new federal programs focused on regional economic and workforce development—the Good Jobs Challenge and the Build Back Better Challenge—through the Commerce Department, a recognition of the leadership role business must play if such programs are to be successful.

A final point, less on policy and more on communications. Every year this country’s higher education institutions award roughly the same number of associate degrees and occupational certificates as bachelor’s degrees. While readers of The New York Times may have a hard time believing this, most young people who go to college attend the college closest to home, which is either a community college or a regional four-year college or university. To reserve the term “college” for four-year institutions is to demean the accomplishments of the young people and adults who manage, often under extremely challenging circumstances, to attain a credential that can enable them to move up the economic ladder. Why not acknowledge that we have two kinds of colleges, and that both can be life-changing for their students?

Robert Schwartz
Robert Schwartz is Professor Emeritus of Practice in Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and Senior Advisor to the Harvard Project on Workforce.
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