A community college system leader discussed community college policy making and influence in Massachusetts with Tracy Corley. This article is the first of a series about the role of community colleges in employment mobility and higher education access in the United States.

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In May 2018, I had a great conversation with a higher education leader in Massachusetts' community college system. I have taught at community colleges and technical schools and have collaborated on programs and public policies for systems in South Carolina and Washington State. Therefore, I was curious about what was happening in Massachusetts. I started the conversation about my desire to convene disparate stakeholders for tackling economic insecurity and exclusion by focusing on assets and opportunities rather than barriers and liabilities. This “and” approach to improving the human condition, I explained, requires more cross-sector collaboration. Development silos do little to advance people and their communities.

The leader agreed and expressed concern that policymakers and government leaders viewed community colleges as secondary level institutions, conflating them with vocational and trade schools. Regions established community colleges to provide non-elite populations with direct access to higher education. This access includes credentials for humanities and social sciences as well as technology and trade occupations.

The conflation of community colleges with vocational-technical schools, she pointed out, threatens to track poor people into less desirable professions. People need more than technical training to be upwardly mobile. “Mobility requires a way of being in the world that you can learn at college,” she said. She explained that despite Greek ancestry, she did not read Aristotle or any Greek classics during her working-class childhood, let alone Shakespeare or other classics that upper-class families took for granted. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” For people from more modest socioeconomic classes, college is the primary way to gain social and economic mobility skills. 

The conflation presents a myopic view of the type of training that community colleges provide. With an emphasis on technical skills, “I worry about tracking poor people into careers that they cannot divert from,” she said. She called the workforce development community’s focus on career tracks the “modern version of assembly lines.” I took this to mean that career tracks channel individuals into prescribed paths, much like Germany’s tracking system that segregates learners as early as age 11 into vocational and academic career pathways. Once students choose a track, changing course is highly discouraged.

She sees tracking systems as a divisor that affords wealthier students the “privilege to become what they want to be” instead of what their technical training prescribes. For me, tracking limits autonomy, constraining choices based on what level of education individuals can afford. Community colleges remove such constraints, making academic-based training and careers equally as accessible as vocational and technical ones. 

Similarly, German parents expressed similar concerns about encouraging vocational careers in the country’s skilled trades and crafts sector, known as Handwerk. During my 2015-2017 research in Germany, one father expressed that though he had attained credentials through the Handwerk system, he wanted an academic education for his two children. “We don’t know what jobs will look like ten years from now, and I don’t want my children to be trapped in jobs that cannot keep up with the world’s changes.”

Upon recognizing this challenge, the Handwerk sector’s leadership has integrated “action-oriented” training into its curricula, introducing mobility training modules for a professional sector often criticized for its inflexibility and lack of innovation. Though centralized curricula ensure that workers can transfer skills to multiple employers, lifelong learning and continuing education have not yet been institutionalized. Some areas, like metro Düsseldorf, have experimented with tripartite education, complementing the sector’s dual system of paid apprenticeship and classroom technical training in a 3.5-year program with bachelor’s degree credentials. Mobility, flexibility, and experience are possible by integrating academic education with work-based and classroom vocational training.

For such approaches to successfully build inclusive economies, governance policies must keep all options accessible, affordable, and equally supported. Unfortunately, many states like Massachusetts reimburse community colleges more for each student who completes a STEM degree than those who attain a humanities or social science degree. “By saying that STEM graduates are worth more, that’s a value statement,” she explained. The stigma associated with attaining that degree at a community college complicates how students think about their education. Issues of race, migrant background, and native language further contribute to what she called the “new achievement gap.” 

So how then can communities create genuinely equitable economies if they do not have truly equitable workforce development models? And how do these models get designed and implemented? This leader worries that current policies—especially the state’s focus on STEM professions and the conflation of vocational-technical training with community colleges—will not get Massachusetts to where it needs to be. “Why is it not everybody’s job to feed the workforce?”

Indeed, government leaders, non-profit organizations, for-profit companies, and educational institutions from pre-K to post-secondary and continuing education programs must work together to improve education access and credential attainment, two drivers of social and economic mobility. Our communities need coordination and must assume shared responsibility for preparing our workforce for the present and the future.