Given the focus on outcomes and accountability, particularly as it relates to financial aid eligibility, community colleges will continue to play a significant role in labor and workforce development in the U.S. But better data is needed to help measure students’ progress and success, a panel of higher education advocates said during an RTI International event on Tuesday.
The event centered on the launch of The Completion Arch, RTI’s new web-based tool that uses national- and state-level data to create a picture of U.S. community colleges and their students, and how well they are prepared to enter the workforce.
The Arch focuses on five areas that correspond to the mission of community colleges, including: enrollment, developmental education placement, progress, transfer and completion rates, and workforce preparation and employment outcomes.
During the discussion, panelists focused on how data like that included in the Arch can be used to improve the relationship between community colleges and workforce partners like community businesses and industries. They also discussed how community colleges could strengthen their position in higher education as leaders in workforce training and development.
Steven Klein, director of RTI’s Career & Adult Education and Workforce Development Center, said that a comprehensive view of labor market development is needed and that community colleges are the best suited to address that on the state and regional levels.
However, one significant challenge researchers and policymakers face is trying to build out data systems that intersect education and workforce issues and to utilize that data in real time. Oftentimes data is outdated by the time it is compiled and thoroughly analyzed, making it difficult to use and justify the cost of maintaining the data systems, he said.
“We have this dual role of trying to build out these data systems and teach people how to use it,” Klein said, adding that RTI’s Arch offers a potential solution by combing national- and state-level data to offer more robust analysis in an easy-to-use format.
Julie Davis Bell, education program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that state legislators are increasingly concerned about improving job attainment in their states and are looking for innovative ways to do so. Community colleges, she said, are often where they look because of the partnerships schools are able to engage in to provide job training relative to local and regional economies.
“Their concerns are about state needs, gaps in jobs, so they want to focus on those [issues] and targeting appropriate responses,” Davis Bell said.
However, tight budgets and difficult policy decisions cannot be made without the right data and knowledge of how to interpret it, Davis Bell said, adding that state legislators need more state-level data like that available in the Arch.
Department of Labor Undersecretary Christopher Lu also spoke at the event, touting the Obama administration’s achievements in improving the U.S. economy and workforce and discussing future efforts to continue to upward trend.
The economy is “unquestioningly moving in the right direction,” Lu said, noting the improved job numbers of the last five and a half years.
However, there is more to be done and the Department of Labor considers community colleges to be the “secret sauce” to workforce development, Lu said. “What we are trying to do is use community colleges to build a foundation for economic prosperity that lasts into the future,” he said.
Investments in community colleges, the workforce training programs, and partnerships they support will help the U.S. achieve the Obama administration’s “commitment to building a 21st century workforce,” and will continue to be invested in, Lu added.
Publication Date: 10/22/2014