Community-College Summit Focuses on Preparing Adult Learners for Careers

February 28, 2011

Institutions around the country are creating policies and programs to encourage more adult learners to earn degrees or certificates, but without a more aggressive approach, reaching President Obama's college-completion goal for the nation will prove difficult, speakers said at a daylong community-college summit here on Monday.

Figuring out ways to get more unemployed adults to make the transition to a community college and the work force was the focus of Monday's summit, held at the Community College of Philadelphia. The summit was the first of four regional meetings organized as follow-up events to the White House Summit on Community Colleges held last fall.

As keynote speaker, Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation for Education, told a crowd of about 150 participants from community colleges, state and local governments, and groups representing business, philanthropy, and labor that "community colleges are the on-ramp for students," especially those from low-income families and those who are adult learners. He also spoke about the critical connection between higher education and the work force and how those connections need to be tightened.

He highlighted data from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce that found that 63 percent of the nation's jobs require some type of postsecondary education. That figure has increased from the mid-1970s, when only 30 percent of jobs required any education beyond high school, he said.

"More postsecondary education is critical to job success," Mr. Merisotis said. "The message is clear if we want a 21st-century labor work force."

The U.S. secretaries of education and labor also attended the summit, and they stressed the need for a skilled, educated work force.

Hilda Solis, the secretary of labor, spoke of the need for high-quality training programs that not only prepare students for a specific job but also give them skills to ensure that they can move on to better jobs over a career.

The education secretary, Arne Duncan, reminded the group of President Obama's goal for the nation once again to lead the world in the percentage of the population with college degrees by 2020, and he said that reaching that goal will require a team effort.

"We can't begin to do this work alone," he said. "It means changing our bureaucracies. It means better alignment between K-12 and higher education. We have to work much smarter at a time of great urgency despite declining resources."

Some institutions are already making changes along those lines, Mr. Merisotis said. As examples, he outlined efforts at several institutions that are finding ways to get more students, especially the critical adult-learner population, to complete college. He said several states offer accelerated programs of a year or less.

Degree acceleration is important to the economy, Mr. Merisotis said, because it brings more people into the work force sooner. And it's important to students, he said, because for many, especially those under financial pressure, time is the enemy. The longer it takes them to complete a degree program, the more at risk they are for dropping out and getting pushed back to low-skilled, low-wage jobs.

He mentioned a concept used by the Tennessee Technology Centers as an example of a program that helps students earn a credential and enter the work force sooner. Students sign up for a program, not individual classes, and they move through the curriculum as a cohort. Students are also told upfront about the cost of the program, and how much they can expect to earn after graduation.

In higher education, he said, "This is not the typical way we do business."

Three more regional meetings will take place over the next six weeks, and each will focus on a particular theme. The topics for the other meetings are successful transfer programs, partnerships between community colleges and employers, and programs for veterans, military members, and their families.

The purpose of the meetings is to identify promising practices for increasing program-completion rates at community colleges. A report will be compiled after the completion of the four regional meetings so everyone in the community-college sector can learn from each other.

A "virtual" community-college summit will also take place in late April as a capstone event following the four regional summits.