Filling the job training gap
May 11, 2012
Sometimes a good story is worth a thousand well-reasoned policy reports.
Adrian Walker’s column in the Boston Globe on Monday, outlining a tale of shockingly clueless leadership at Roxbury Community College, may have delivered as big a punch as all the many reports that have documented abysmal graduation rates and dysfunctional career-path programming at some of the state’s community colleges.
Walker wrote about an effort by some of the state’s most high-powered business honchos to bring a job training program to RCC. Good paying jobs are, of course, key to breaking the generational cycle of poverty that is all too prevalent in minority neighborhoods surrounding the Columbus Avenue campus. That would seem to have made the job-training offer by the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership a no-brainer. Instead, RCC’s president, Terrence Gomes, for reasons he continues to refuse to explain, told the business leaders to take a hike. Which they did, taking their fully industry-paid program to Bunker Hill Community College, which welcomed the initiative with open arms.
The state’s community colleges have long come under criticism for graduation rates that lag national averages and for not always aligning their programs with the workforce needs of regional economies across the state. Performance among the 15 campuses is uneven, with some doing a good job, while others seem to be endlessly spinning their wheels.
The Roxbury campus has a special place in the wheel-spinning category. It is far and away the lowest performer among the state’s public community colleges. Its graduation rate for full-time, degree-seeking students: 6 percent. That means barely 1 in every 20 students enrolling in a full-time, two-year associate’s degree program graduates within three years, the extended period allotted by federal authorities to measure college completion rates.
Against that dismal backdrop, the idea that the college would turn down a training program offering paid internships with possible pathways to employment at places like Raytheon and Suffolk Construction seems like nothing less than educational malpractice. Indeed, if the chronically underperforming Lawrence school system was recently judged so irredeemable that a state takeover was ordered, is it unreasonable to think Gov. Deval Patrick and legislative leaders should consider state receivership or some type of housecleaning at a public higher education institution that is failing just as badly those it is designed to serve?
The RCC story certainly provides a compelling argument for Patrick’s proposal to bring the community colleges under tighter state control, with more authority for state education officials to oversee their administration and ensure coordination of workforce training programs. The recently released House budget took some small steps in this direction.
Another provision in the House budget, however, which has received little notice to date, could go a long way toward filling the gap in high-performing, post-secondary education programs oriented toward preparing state residents for decent-paying jobs. The measure, with bipartisan backing from House Minority Leader Brad Jones and state Rep. Marty Walz, a Boston Democrat, would create a commission to explore whether to allow the state’s vocational-technical schools to extend their programming beyond high school to grant two-year associate’s degrees. “If it helps more people get more education and better jobs, what’s not to like?” says Walz.
Charlie Lyons, superintendent of the Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica, says his school has a $4.6 million health sciences wing and a $2 million machine shop that sit empty after 3 pm and all weekend. “We keep hearing there are 145,000 jobs for which there is no training,” says Lyons. “We think we can fill a lot of that void.”
There is plenty of reason to think they’d do a good job of it. Shawsheen boasts a 98 percent graduation rate, and the grad rate for voke-tech high schools statewide is 65 percent, Lyons says. A 2008 report from the Pioneer Institute praised the state’s voke-tech schools as unsung stars of the state’s K-12 education system. The voke-tech schools get great results from a “combination of high expectations by educators and the completion of challenging, rigorous coursework by students,” the report said.
Walz says the voke-tech legislation is in no way intended as a criticism of community colleges. But the educationally scandalous ways at RCC sure make a good case for the Senate including the measure in its version of the budget.