Press "Enter" to skip to content

Community colleges leave students out of training plans

Earlier this week, White House adviser Neera Tanden advised community colleges to be ready for the work that is to come. Speaking at the American Association of Community Colleges Workforce Development Institute conference, Tanden said that the federal government plans to fund a wide range of infrastructure projects in the near future.

She counseled attendees that the planned projects require workers. The problem with this advice is that it leaves out one thing: the students. It’s easy to tell community colleges to train workers in specific fields, but there’s no guarantee that community colleges can entice students into those programs.

The biggest incentive that speaks to prospective students is money. Lowering community college tuition – even eliminating it – is not the solution for the country’s workforce needs. Funding jobs that pay living wages and that enable workers to gain entry to and remain in the middle class would speak much louder to those looking for work.

It is insufficient to train workers for what amounts to temporary jobs. Instead, funding programs that lead to stable, long-term employment opportunities will attract students in large numbers. The annual average wage that community college programs generate is appalling. Young adults cannot live on wages that fall below the living wage for their areas. Established adults, who may be returning to the workforce or retraining to develop new skills, certainly cannot tolerate near-poverty wages.

It is high time that community colleges recognize that they have become poverty machines. Inadvertently or otherwise, they generate workers who exist on the margins. Perhaps they make slightly more than a living wage; maybe they make less. In either case, these workers don’t make enough to survive even a minor unexpected expense.

We could put community colleges to better use

Community colleges cannot continue to vend programs that lead to poverty-tier wages. These programs do not provide economic mobility. They have the long-term effect of binding people to unstable jobs and wages. It’s hard to see how this short-sighted approach helps anyone. Wages aren’t robust enough to retain workers in necessary industries. Then, when government funding comes through, community colleges have to crank out a raft of new workers, who will leave the industry because the salary does not mitigate the working conditions.

It’s an expensive way to prepare workers for a short, unrewarding career. And while it may temporarily add tuition revenue to the institution’s budget, it doesn’t recognize that we can use community colleges more efficiently to produce a better return on our collective investment.

Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis , via Flickr