Degree Awards Set Record Despite Rocky Educational Landscape

This has been a rocky year for higher education in the United States. States and local communities face the most severe financial constraints that have been experienced since most community colleges opened their doors. Federal panels abound examining the practices of all higher education institutions, questioning our costs, productivity and quality. Gainful employment rules and the tightening accreditation standards promise additional, unfunded mandates and new accountability requirements. In the middle of all of this, all institutions and community colleges in particular, struggle to offer a highly valued service to an increasingly diverse array of students and community partners with increasingly scarce resources.

So how are we doing? If the sheer quantity of students attaining degrees and other formal awards is any measure of success — and many argue it’s the most important measure — then this year’s data on associate degree and other pre-baccalaureate certificates is good news. Based on preliminary national data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of associate degrees, one-year certificates, and two-year certificates reached an all-time high and both the numerical and percentage increase over the past year are the largest in recent history for all three award types.

As we note each year in this analysis, traditional community colleges (i.e., those in the public, two-year sector) have the largest market share of associate degrees and pre-baccalaureate certificates, but they share the market with an increasingly diverse array of other public, private non-profit, and private-for-profit education providers. As many traditional community colleges have expanded their offerings to include some bachelor’s degrees, several for-profit online providers have emerged as leading institutions in associate degree conferrals, with the University of Phoenix topping the list with 33,449 degrees conferred in just one year through its online campus.

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New Initiative Enlists Colleges To Close Skills Gaps

It’s the mismatch confronting and confounding policymakers and educators trying to accelerate the country’s slow climb out of economic recession.

Even as unemployment exceeds 9 percent, thousands of jobs are going unfilled.

A daunting workforce skills gap has left legions of Americans out of work, companies scrambling to find qualified workers and executives and political leaders fretting openly about a skills crisis.

Now, an initiative with the imprimatur of President Barack Obama has turned to community colleges to help close those gaps through a national network of partnerships with employers and businesses.

Obama traveled across the Potomac River to the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College to tout the expansion of Skills for America’s Future, an industry-led initiative that was announced during Obama’s White House Community College Summit last October.

The Skills initiative, spearheaded by the nonprofit Aspen Institute, aims to link industry with community colleges to train workers in emerging fields. Among the institute’s goals is to develop a national network of partnerships between employers, labor unions and community colleges to identify solutions to the skills gap and apply them across the country.

The first part of the initiative aims to prepare 500,000 community college students for careers in manufacturing, where an aging workforce and rapid technical advances are contributing to a large and growing skills gap.

“The irony is even though a lot of folks are looking for work, there are a lot of companies that are actually also looking for skilled workers,” Obama said. “There’s a mismatch that we can close.And this partnership is a great way to do it.”

National Certification

The initiative will develop a curriculum, based on the National Association of Manufacturers’ advanced manufacturing skills certification system, which will be implemented at community colleges in 30 states. Credentials earned by students would not be an alternative to a two-year associate degree, but rather would equip students with the skills they need to get a good job and help employers fully understand what skills students possess.

A welding student, for example, would be able to leave a community college with a certificate that employers in shipbuilding or automobile manufacturing could recognize as a proof of the graduate’s skill set.

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