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Community Colleges and Employment: Research Perspectives on President Obama's Proposal

David Neumark, University of California, Irvine
March 27, 2012

community collegeIn the second installment of our Election 2012 series, economist David Neumark discusses President Obama's proposal to increase funding for community colleges. Read more of his research on education and labor policy in his RSF book Improving School-to-Work Transitions.

One component of President Obama’s efforts to increase educational levels of the workforce is increased support for community colleges. Research points to the potential value of community colleges in helping young people make successful school-to-work transitions, in part by highlighting the links between what community colleges offer and the needs of the labor market, and how community colleges are able to respond to these needs. Community colleges can perform an important function in adult education, which can help meet the challenges of an aging population by enabling older workers to retool and remain productive at work.

A volume I edited based on a conference supported by the Russell Sage Foundation (Neumark, 2007) explored a number of policies and programs to improve the school-to-work transition, at both the high school and college level. The high school-level policies include activities supported under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 and Career Academies. Career and Technical Education programs span high schools and community colleges. And the post-high school manifestation of school-to-work is community colleges. There is longitudinal evidence that high school programs boosted subsequent employment or the accumulation of skills. And the most compelling evidence of positive impacts comes from an experimental evaluation of the Career Academy model (Kemple, 2008).


What about community colleges? In support of the President’s efforts, the White House argues that “Community Colleges are particularly important for students who are older, working, or need remedial classes. Community colleges work with businesses, industry and government to create tailored training programs to meet economic needs like nursing, health information technology, advanced manufacturing, and green jobs."

The research record is supportive of this claim on both counts.

In a recent AARP/Gates Foundation report (Neumark et al., 2011), my co-authors and I discuss a variety of evidence on the role community colleges play in preparing students for jobs in current demand. For example, community colleges play a leading role in the production of the nursing and health services workforce, occupations that will grow rapidly in coming decades; and recognizing this, many states have channeled efforts through community colleges to boost the supply of nurses. In other areas as well, community colleges can be viewed as “first responders” to occupational shortages. A prominent example is the major role community colleges are playing in the creation of programs training workers for green jobs—in this case often with support from the private sector.


The role of community colleges in meeting workforce needs is natural, as these colleges emphasize career and technical training relative to liberal arts or pre-professional education. But there is also evidence that community colleges, including private two-year colleges, are especially attuned to local labor market needs. Person and Rosenbaum (2007) point out that nearly half of those who enter postsecondary education do so at community and two-year colleges. And they document how these institutions create links between school and work, including greater contact and integration between faculty/teaching and career services, increased involvement with advisory committees of local employers, fewer bureaucratic obstacles to changing curricula to respond to new developments, more individualized and intensive job placement efforts, and a mission focused on workforce training rather than on general education and transfer to four-year colleges. One theme of their research is that private occupational colleges may do a better job at building these links, although earlier research on community colleges by Brewer and Gray (1999) and Leigh and Gill (2007) suggests that community colleges are also attuned to the local labor market.


Finally, research also points to a potentially important role for community colleges in combatting the effects of skill shortages that may arise as a result of population aging (Neumark et al., 2011). Population aging may lead to skill shortages because, unlike with past cohorts, the retiring baby boomers will not be replaced in the workforce by substantially more-educated cohorts, while skill demands seem likely to continue to grow. This research suggests two important roles for community colleges. First, in states with large younger Hispanic immigrant populations, the retirement of the baby boomers is more likely to generate skill shortages; and community colleges are a natural way to increase skill acquisition among lower-income immigrant populations. Second, although adult education is not a large-scale phenomenon, "upskilling" of adults—much of which presumably occurs at community colleges—can play a substantial role in meeting skill shortages because even a small amount of upskilling among a large adult population can lead to substantial increases in education levels in the workforce.


A new study, however, raises a potentially important qualification to the value of emphasizing community college education for youths. Hanushek et al. (2011) compare the potential benefits of vocational education—which is intended to improve the school-to-work transition—and general education—which may yield more of its rewards in longer-term adaptability to the labor market enhanced by the accumulation of general skills. Evidence from data on 18 advanced economies is consistent with vocational education boosting the school-to-work transition, resulting in higher employment and earnings early in life. But consistent with general education providing greater adaptability, those with general education have better outcomes later in life. Finally, for three European countries for which it makes the most sense to compare present discounted values of life-cycle income across these education tracks, general education yields higher values for the two countries with fast economic growth, while vocational education yields a higher value for the country with lower growth. This is consistent with the theory, since adaptability may be less important in an economy growing more slowly.

This study does not provide a firm answer about the relative value of the two types of education—and certainly not for the United States. But it raises an important issue in thinking about education policies focused on the school-to-work transition—namely, while successful school-to-work transitions are important to socioeconomic success, they are not the be all and end all of long-term socioeconomic success. Of course one way to help community colleges improve school-to-work transitions and boost adaptability to a changing labor market is to make it easier for community colleges to serve older adults seeking new skills or more education, and to make it easier for older adults to access this education. Unfortunately the substantial cuts to community colleges in at least some states, in response to budgetary difficulties posed by the Great Recession, may limit the ability of community colleges to provide both youths and adults with the skills needed to succeed in the labor market.


Brewer, Dominic J., and Maryann Jacobi Gray. 1999. “Do Faculty Connect School to Work? Evidence from Community Colleges.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter, pp. 405-16.

Hanushek, Eric A., Ludger Woessman, and Lei Zhang. 2011. “General Education, Vocational Education, and Labor-Market Outcomes Over the Life-Cycle.” NBER Working Paper No. 17504.

Kemple, James J., with Cynthia J. Willner. 2008. Career Academies: Long-Term Impacts on Labor Market Outcomes, Educational Attainment, and Transitions to Adulthood. New York: MDRC.

Leigh, Duane E., and Andrew M. Gill. 2007. Do Community Colleges Respond to Local Needs? Evidence from California. Kalamazoo, MI: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Person, Ann E., and James E. Rosenbaum. 2007. “Labor-Market Linkages Among Two-Year College Faculty and Their Impact on Student Perceptions, Effort, and College Persistence.” In Improving School-to-Work Transitions, David Neumark, ed. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, pp. 210-46

Neumark, David. 2007. Improving School-to-Work Transitions. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Neumark, David, Hans Johnson, Qian Li, and Eric Schiff. 2011. Will Workers Have the Education Needed for the Available Jobs? Washington, DC: AARP Foundation.