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Community colleges faulted on health studies

Flaws make career training difficult, report says

The state’s community college system is failing to adequately prepare students for technical careers in high-demand health care fields because it is too disjointed for students and employers to navigate, according to the first sweeping report to lay out the problem and suggest solutions.

The report, released yesterday, lists a litany of issues holding back potential employees and hindering one of the city’s crucial industries. The colleges vary in how they assess academic performance, using different test scores to judge whether students need remedial education. They do not make it easy to transfer from one school to another. Some offer entry-level training programs in certain fields, such as nursing, but do not allow those credits to count toward advanced diplomas later on.

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The result is that students must put enormous energy into figuring out how to obtain the qualifications they want - often so much that they end up dropping out instead - and employers do not know if students with the same degrees from different schools are equally qualified.

“Community colleges should be a steppingstone for opportunity, and instead some of them are a roadblock,’’ said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “You hear things like, ‘Oh, we have a 15 percent graduation rate; we’re good.’ Give me a break.’’

The colleges, many of which contributed to the report, say that they are trying to improve and that it is difficult to anticipate workforce needs. “There are employers who are also very, very different from each other, and they may describe the skill sets needed for their jobs differently,’’ said Mary Fifield, president of Bunker Hill Community College. “If consistency needs to be worked on, it would be fair to say that this report should enable employers, as well as the colleges, to bring it about.’’

The report, called “Critical Collaboration,’’ went through dozens of drafts over 18 months of intense negotiation coordinated by the Boston Private Industry Council. Contributors included 20 health care providers, 17 civic groups, seven schools, the mayor’s office, and the state Department of Higher Education.

The groups were not strangers to the issues, but the key players had never sat down to solve them together. Health care providers had worked with individual community colleges but not with the system as a whole. “There hasn’t been a robust dialogue around what’s changing,’’ said Joanne Pokaski, director of workforce development at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The report comes at a critical time for community colleges, which have been deluged by unemployed workers looking for training. The colleges are a linchpin of the Obama administration’s push to increase drastically the country’s number of college graduates by 2020.

The Massachusetts community college system is more strapped for cash than those of many other states. It spends a significant chunk on remedial courses for those who arrive underprepared for college.

The system is also unusually decentralized. Each college determines its course offerings. There is no standard numbering system for classes, as there is in some other states, so students who pass Biology 100 at one school may be ill-equipped to take Biology 200 at another.

Getting students trained quickly under uniform standards is a major priority for health care providers, who currently turn to temporary employment agencies to fill vacancies. “That’s costly, and it doesn’t create a stable employment base,’’ said Gary Gottlieb, chief executive of Partners HealthCare, who also chairs the Private Industry Council. “If you can get those folks from your own communities instead, my God, what a benefit.’’

The report lays out several strategies to help make that happen. It recommends that colleges settle on a single way of assessing need for remedial courses and make those credits transferable between schools. It also calls for more “stackable credentials,’’ credits that do not add up to a degree by themselves but can count towards one later, which some colleges in the state are developing with a grant from the Department of Labor.

The report proposes a statewide electronic database of transcripts so students can transfer with ease. It also calls for employers to create new internship opportunities and make their labor needs clearer.

Its authors will discuss the next steps tomorrow. It is unclear how fast the recommendations can be implemented, said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Private Industry Council.

“We all agree on what we need to do,’’ he said. “Now we get to the how, and the hard work begins.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.
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