Education Sections

Breaking Down the Report Card

Study on Community Colleges Prompts Questions, Criticism

Bill Messner

Bill Messner


Bob Pura says he found at least a few things to like about the recent Boston Foundation report titled “The Case for Community Colleges: Aligning Higher Education and Workforce Needs in Massachusetts” — especially the main subject of the account.
“I’m glad they focused on community colleges — we need and deserve that kind of attention,” said Pura, the long-time president of Greenfield Community College, noting that this segment of the Commonwealth’s higher-education portfolio is often overlooked due to the prevalence of top-shelf private colleges. He also liked the fact that the report, released late last month, said the 15 institutions are woefully underfunded and that the state needs to step up its commitment to the schools.
Bob Pura

Bob Pura

But beyond that, Pura had some major reservations about the document and its primary message — summed up by a recent local headline: “Report Slams Community Colleges” — that these institutions were essentially failing in one of their primary missions, to train individuals to succeed in today’s technology-driven job market.
Actually, this was the conclusion of two reports released within the same week. In the other, the Commonwealth Corp., in a report titled “Critical Collaboration,” found that the state’s community colleges are not properly aligning their training programs with the specific needs of the health-care industry. According to the report, the schools are not creating important standards that ensure sufficient academic performance from students.
This double whammy had many community-college presidents on the defensive, but those we spoke with mixed praise for the reports — especially the Boston Foundation document — with criticism that it was recommending that things be fixed that aren’t necessarily broken.
Pura said the report seemed far too Boston-focused to be considered complete and fully accurate — one of its main recommendations is the merger of Roxbury and Bunker Hill community colleges — and surmised that those doing the research might not have ventured west of Worcester or even Route 128 as they went about their work. If they were more thorough, he argued, they would have found plenty of evidence that community colleges are successfully training and retraining thousands of individuals.
Bill Messner, president of Holyoke Community College, agreed, and took exception to some of the report’s primary recommendations, including a centralization effort that would do away with local boards of trustees at the community colleges, and a call for a more singular focus on workforce training, presumably, he believes, at the expense of one of his school’s historical strengths — transfer programs to four-year schools.
Meanwhile, Messner, Pura, and others said a move back to a centralized board for all 15 institutions would rob those schools of individuality and probably stifle ongoing efforts at various schools to address many of the concerns listed in the report.
“How’s that going to enhance workforce efforts? I don’t know,” asked Messner in reference to the centralization proposal before answering his own question.
Ira Rubenzahl

Ira Rubenzahl

Meanwhile, Ira Rubenzahl, president of Springfield Technical Community College, said that, while many of the report’s conclusions can be debated, its basic argument — that community colleges have a huge role in both workforce development and economic development, and need more financial support to carry out that role — cannot be.
And this is what he hopes everyone — including the community-college presidents that have assailed the report — can take away from this exercise moving forward.
“The reason for looking at community colleges now is economic,” said Rubenzahl, referring to both the timing of the report and its main thrust. “We’re still in the throes of the Great Recession, and certainly employment has not responded. And if we’re going to have a vibrant economy in Massachusetts, the report argues, and I agree, that community colleges have to play an important role — a bigger role — for that to happen.”

Schools of Thought
The crux of the Boston Foundation’s report — and the reason for its focus on the role and performance of community colleges — can be found in its executive summary:
“Massachusetts has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation and has added more jobs throughout the recession than most states. However, this transition has not benefited everyone,” it reads. “Rather, as blue-collar jobs continue their long decline, it is leaving far too many workers on the sidelines. There are great rewards for those with the requisite levels of education and skills — and far fewer options for everyone  else, as the economy becomes more and more highly specialized.
“While traditional jobs are disappearing, the gap between the needs of the knowledge economy and the educational attainment of the state’s residents is growing every year,” the report continues. “The recession has been especially tough on on those with less than a high-school diploma, leading to unemployment rates that are four times greater than those of college graduates. Already there are regions of Massachusetts where low rates of educational attainment have exasperated high unemployment levels and stalled economic recovery.”
“The economic imperative for aligning the workforce needs of Massachusetts with the needs of students attending community colleges is powerful and growing,” the authors go on. “Massachusetts is at a crossroads in its capacity to compete — and the ability of its residents to fully participate in the current economy and the rewards that employment brings. For the Commonwealth to flourish going forward, a high priority must be placed on training the workforce that is needed by the industries that are driving the Massachusetts economy. That responsibility falls squarely on the Commonwealth’s public higher-education system, most predominately the 15 community colleges.”
To enable these institutions to effectively carry out that assignment, the report’s authors recommend a number of steps, starting with a clarification and simplification of the schools’ mission. Not only is that mission too wordy, says the foundation (252, compared to 102 for North Carolina and an ultra-concise 18 in Virginia), but it is too broad.
The mission statement “is indicative of a lack of focus and an attempt to be all things to all people,” the authors state. “It is time for community colleges to embrace their role as the link between elementary education and career. This encompasses transfer to to a four-year college, technical education, certificate programs, and career retraining programs. The mission should be providing the Commonwealth’s residents with the education and skills necessary for a productive career with a family-supporting wage.”
Other recommendations include:
• “Developing a strategic blueprint for building a system that effectively leverages the capacity of community colleges to be leaders in meeting the workforce needs of Massachusetts”;
• Strengthening the community-college system of governance and accountability. “The existence of 15 community college governing boards, to whom the presidents report, completely independent from the Board of Commissioner of Higher Education, is not conducive to achieving state and regional workforce-development goals,” the authors write;
• Adopting performance metrics;
• Better preparing students for community-college-level work and graduation;
• Forming a community-college coalition; and
• Stabilizing community-college funding and consolidating the funding into one line item managed by the commissioner of Higher Education.
Paul Grogan, CEO of the foundation, told the Boston Globe, “I hope the colleges see this is not a blame game, not an assault, but just the reverse — we’re saying these institutions are crucial to the economic future of the state.”

Grade Expectations
The community-college presidents we spoke with said this message is certainly embedded in the report, although they believe it may likely get lost amid headline-making recommendations such as merging two of the schools, eliminating local governance, and narrowing the schools’ broad focus to workforce-related initiatives.
Meanwhile, they hint strongly that the authors may have overlooked Western Mass. in their research, and thus some evidence that the schools are working on some of the issues the report details — specifically that often-mentioned jobs-skills mismatch — and achieving progress.
“I thought the study lacked perspective on Western Massachusetts,” said Pura. “I thought that the wonderful work that’s going on in Springfield, Holyoke, the Berkshires, and here in Franklin County was not spoken to. That fact is that community colleges are very tied to the workforce agenda, and they’re serving the communities of this region in a rather powerful and significant way.”
As examples, he cited work at Berkshire Community College to partner with business leaders there to help make graduates workplace-ready; a regionwide effort called the Healthcare Workforce Partnership of Western Mass., designed to draw more people into health care fields and train them for those jobs; and the recently announced collaborative between HCC and STCC called TWO (Training and Workforce Options) through which the schools are essentially combining their workforce-training initiatives.
And he also summoned a recent anecdote from his own school that he believes is quite typical of what’s happening across the region.
“I know of one particular individual who was laid off; he worked with the regional employment board, and essentially went through the system,” Pura explained. “He had never been out of work before, and didn’t know how he would provide for his family. He wound up at GCC, got involved in our sustainable-energy program, did an internship with Sandri Energy Co., and is now gainfully employed there.
“If you asked him, this gentleman would say that the system works,” he continued, “and there are countless other people who could say the same thing.”
Messner had some similar observations, but noted quickly that workforce preparation is simply a part of the community-college mission — a large part, to be sure, but only one component that should not become the singular focus of such institutions.
“As you read this report, you come away with the sense that what they mean is we should be focused on short-term training and technical training, and that this whole focus on general education and liberal-arts transfer amounts to resources that are misallocated — which we simply don’t agree with here,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re a comprehensive community college; that’s our mission. We do transfer, we do liberal arts, we do adult basic education.
“Is that a lot? Yes, but that’s what we’re in business to do; that’s what we’re charged with doing,” he continued. “And the notion that we’re somehow going to truncate our mission doesn’t make sense; more and more students are coming to us because they’re being priced out of four-year education, and they’re coming to us for a start in that direction.”
Rubenzahl, meanwhile, without necessarily disagreeing with his colleague’s comments, said he’s choosing to view the report in the most positive way he can, and that is by focusing on its central theme — that community colleges are at the crossroads of education and the workplace, and must function effectively in that role if the state is to reverse those recent trends concerning out-migration, unemployment, and underemployment.
“There has been a fundamental change in the way education has to interact with the economy,” he explained. “We all have to be very thoughtful about how to improve education in order to help the economy recover.”

Thoughts in Passing
Echoing Pura’s thoughts, both Messner and Rubenzahl praised the report’s authors for bringing needed attention to the plight of community colleges as they go about their work.
“I was generally pleased that we’re getting this kind of attention,” said Rubenzahl. “Because generally, community colleges have labored in this state without a lot of recognition, and without the kind of support that goes with more recognition.”
Whether that support is coming is a matter of conjecture, but for now, community-college leaders and state legislators have been given something to think about — and debate — concerning the future of institutions who are finally getting some due, even if it comes complete with large doses of controversy.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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