All Eyes on Texas: Community Colleges Focus on Preparing the Workforce of Tomorrow
IV. Ideas for future reform
Among the items on the commission’s agenda: expanding the state’s investment in community colleges, redesigning the state’s community college funding formula to reward outcomes, addressing regional disparities in college funding, subsidizing tuition for dual credit programs and providing support for capacity building, particularly for workforce education.
Three other areas that deserve attention, whether in the short term or in years to come, are noncredit student aid, incentives for more intensive collaboration with employers and incentives to blur the line between credit and noncredit education.
- Noncredit student aid. With accelerating technological change transforming industries across the state, a growing number of Texas workers are likely to need fast, job-focused education and training. Community college noncredit divisions are well-positioned to provide this rapid reskilling, responding agilely to employer needs and serving displaced learners in a hurry to return to the labor market.
The common course-numbering system’s prescribed learning outcomes put the state ahead of many others in assuring the quality of job-focused noncredit learning, and the new outcomes-based funding formula proposed by the finance commission, could provide a significant boost for noncredit trainings that culminate in in-demand credentials.
But institutional aid alone is not enough. With virtually no federal financial aid available for continuing education, noncredit students nationwide dig into their own pockets to cover the cost of tuition, and according to the Opportunity America survey, Texas students bear more of a burden than those in many other states.
Asked about the mix of federal, state and private funding that pays for noncredit workforce programs, Texas colleges responding to the Opportunity America survey reported that students cover 46 percent of the cost, compared with 36 percent nationwide (Figure 7).
Bipartisan legislation circulating in Congress since 2017 would expand federal Pell Grant eligibility to cover some noncredit workforce students. But even if the measure were to pass, many community colleges will not offer enough hours of instruction to qualify for funding, while others will be unable to meet the bill’s stringent requirements for reporting data about student employment outcomes. Texas could consider supplementing whatever Congress provides with state student aid.
One option would be a traditional, means-tested scholarship program. Another, more innovative possibility would be outcomes-based stipends modeled on a pioneering Virginia program, FastForward, that provides full support only in cases where students complete a program of study and earn an industry certification.
The aid could come with conditions and be directed toward programs that prepare students for well-paying jobs in in-demand fields—occupations and industries identified by the Texas Workforce Commission. Preference could be given to programs developed with input from employers. Courses could prepare students for industry certification assessments, and employer partners could commit to interviewing qualified graduates.
Noncredit workforce programs at Texas community colleges also need funding for capacity building. Many noncredit divisions lag behind the credit side of the college in their ability to track students and report outcomes. Others lack experience attracting and serving the students who most need retraining— midcareer adults. But noncredit learners reskilling for a new job or industry don’t have to wait for long-term college reform. Changes that address student financial aid and capacity building can go hand in hand.
- Employer engagement. Among the most pressing needs for capacity building at many small and mid-size Texas community colleges is help engaging employers to partner in providing workforce education.
Good metrics of employer engagement are scarce. But despite the effective outreach at some larger schools, Texas scores relatively low on two proxy measures, participation in apprenticeship programs and attainment of industry certifications. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Texas workers are roughly one-third as likely to be enrolled in an apprenticeship program as learners in the states with the most robust participation. And according to the Opportunity America survey, just 17 percent of Texas noncredit workforce students earn industry credentials, compared with 25 percent nationwide.
The kind of collaboration that’s needed to boost these numbers rarely comes naturally to companies or colleges, and relatively few states have experimented with financial incentives for training partnerships. The community college finance commission has proposed funding for paid work-based learning opportunities—apprenticeship, internship and work-study programs—developed jointly by educators and employers. But this is just the beginning of what could be done, and there are promising models to draw on both inside and outside the state.
The success of the Skills Development Fund grant program reinforces an important lesson: Companies that hire graduates of colleges they partner with have a vested interest in the quality of the instruction that other firms, including those participating in a college advisory committee, are unlikely to have.
The challenge for policymakers is to develop incentives for more firms that benefit from community college education and training to guarantee interviews or commit to considering job applications from some share of program graduates.
- Blurring the line between credit and noncredit education. Noncredit workforce students seeking to advance their careers should be able to return to school later in life for more education, whether for short stints of job training or longer programs leading to degrees.
Texas is no exception. According to the University of Michigan’s analysis of Texas noncredit data, between 2013 and 2018, just 5 percent of Texas noncredit students appear to have gone on to enroll in credit programs.
Is this because learners aren’t interested—a short, job-focused noncredit program enabled them to meet their goals without more schooling? Or is it because the means are lacking—there are no mechanisms in place that enable students to leverage their noncredit learning? It’s probably a little of both. But more stackability—easier and more readily available transitions between credit and noncredit learning—would likely encourage more adult learners to come back to college for midcareer upskilling.
The common course-numbering system gives Texas an advantage over other states struggling to build bridges between credit and noncredit education. The learning outcomes in the WECM manual facilitate the alignment of credit and noncredit workforce courses. In theory, noncredit welding 101 produces the same learning outcomes as credit-eligible welding 101—so there should be no need for case-by-case consideration of students who want to make the transition to an academic program, building on rather than repeating their noncredit learning as they accumulate the credits required for a degree or certificate.
But not every Texas community college accommodates these kinds of transitions, and no state incentives encourage them to do so.
The community college finance commission has proposed that the state create a “crosswalk”—a framework of course equivalencies between credit and noncredit programs—to facilitate crossover from one division to another.
Such a framework could build on a Florida program that encourages noncredit students who earn industry certifications to leverage them for college credit, often significantly reducing the time and money it takes to earn an associate degree. What makes that program work: There’s no need for a case-by-case determination. Students who earn, say, an Automotive Service Excellence engine repair certification, can leverage it for a fixed number of credits—three in this case and more for many other certifications— at any college in the state.
A second potential step—supplementing the proposed crosswalk—would create funding incentives for colleges to help students bridge the divide between credit and noncredit. Neither the state’s existing Success Points performance funding nor the outcomes-based formula proposed by the finance commission create incentives for this type of transfer from noncredit to credit.
According to campus-level administrators, Success Points dollars make up too small a share of state funding to influence decision-making. They generally account for less than 3 percent of college revenue, according to Dallas College Chancellor Emeritus Joe May, and the formula includes no workforce metrics.
This is an area ripe for change. Texas could build on its own homegrown model, the successful Texas State Technical College funding formula, to create an outcomes-based approach that does more to reward community college programs aligned with local labor market needs, including job placements, wages and students who make a transition from noncredit to credit learning.
Still another option, arguably the easiest and quickest, would be collecting and highlighting data on crossover from noncredit to credit programs. What gets measured often gets improved, and this would be a powerful way for the state to signal its interest in blurring the line between credit and noncredit education.
There is much that can be done, but the first, essential step is recognizing the importance of noncredit workforce programs and the midcareer adults who rely on them. As automation accelerates and more Americans need to retool to keep up with a changing economy, working adults will constitute a growing and increasingly important share of community college students.