Community Colleges and the “Middle skills” gap

Over at the New England Journal of Higher Education,Yves Salomon-Fernandez, vice president for strategic planning, institutional effectiveness and grants development at MassBay Community College and executive officer of MassBay’s Framingham Campus has a piece on what community colleges can do to close the so-called middle skills gap:

In Massachusetts—from the governor, often flanked by business leaders, to the commissioner of higher education, to President Obama speaking at a high school in Worcester this past spring—it appears that everyone is concerned with the middle-skills gap. And Massachusetts is not alone. For southern New England, the middle-skills gap is projected to become acute by 2020, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Furthermore, projections from the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and independent analyses suggest that, without intentional public policy, a mix of demographic, migration, industry and labor market factors could adversely impact the New England economy. . . .

Why haven’t community colleges been able to meet this demand?  Salomon-Fernandez points to one major factor:  the abysmal graduation rates for community college students, with four-year graduation rates (for two-year degrees) in the 10 to 20 percent range for many institutions.  The solution she recommends?

. . . .Any scalable attempt to raise community college student graduation rates has to address the root cause of low graduation rates at community colleges. Community college students face significant obstacles to completing college. Simple issues like childcare, transportation, housing, and cost of books are among the top reasons for student withdrawals. While systematic data have not been collected across campuses to quantify the magnitude of these problems, most campuses collect data on student withdrawals and many provide emergency funds that aim to address these issues but not at the scale necessary to eradicate them. Nationally, a 2009 study by the Gates Foundation found balancing work, family commitments and school, lack of financial and other supports were major reasons for community college students to drop out.

This is an issue we first identified in our work at SUNY-New Paltz a generation ago.  One can only hope it gets enough attention this time around.  The full NEJHE article is here.

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