As part of his American Graduation Initiative, President Obama recently proposed $12 billion in new funding for community colleges to increase the number of community college graduates by 5 million by 2020. Obama's ultimate goal is for the U.S. to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Bragg is playing a leading role in Illinois' "Shifting Gears" initiative, which aims to support programs that prepare low-skilled or low-income adults as they enter occupations in three industry sectors: healthcare, manufacturing and transportation distribution logistics. Bragg was interviewed by News Bureau education editor Phil Ciciora.
With the economy continuing to struggle, is $12 billion in new funding enough to help community colleges?
No. President Obama's commitment of $12 billion definitely isn't enough, but it's a good start. Community colleges have never gotten their fair slice of the federal pie in terms of education dollars despite enrolling about half of the country's undergraduate students and contributing to the economic well-being of communities throughout the U.S., particularly small- to medium-size towns that rely heavily on them to prepare the local workforce. Even with financial aid in the form of Pell grants, community colleges and their students secure fewer funds despite their disproportionate enrollment of
low-income students, compared to the rest of higher education.
How can increased spending help low-skilled adult workers or those transitioning into a new field because of the recession?
Our research shows adult learners benefit from programs that give them a chance to "try-out" college. These programs are often called bridge programs because they provide the first step that many adults need in order to prepare them for college life. Bridge programs provide entry-level college content in combination with a high level of advising and support, allowing many adults to both learn the basics and gain the confidence they need to succeed in college.
What are the benefits for adults who transition or "bridge" into community college and technical programs?
Our research shows that the majority of adults who enroll in bridge programs complete the programs and eventually enroll in college. These results are especially impressive given that bridge programs accelerate the pace of learning and integrate basic skills with technical education, so students spend less time in the classroom compared with other students of similar backgrounds. These are particularly important benefits for working adults, who typically have jobs that pay hourly wages with few benefits and need to maximize their time spent in the classroom.
In Illinois, several community colleges have adopted new policies to facilitate bridge programs, including changing admissions and tuition policies and aligning curriculum across adult education, developmental education and technical education. These changes will result in better communication and coordination between levels of the education and training system throughout the state.
What barriers do low-skilled adult workers face as they enter college for the first time?
Low-skilled adults face many barriers, chief among them the lack of foundational knowledge necessary to be successful in college. Although they're accustomed to students who aren't well prepared for college, community colleges have inadequate student services to support low-skilled adults. The placement tests that they administer don't do a sufficient job of diagnosing math, reading and writing competency gaps.
Course scheduling is also a serious problem for many community colleges, especially since many adults lack computer skills. From a funding standpoint, the misalignment of federal and state education and training systems complicates getting students the financial aid and support they need to participate in bridge programs and later enroll in college.