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Opinion | The Podium

A power grab at community colleges? Not so much

President Obama looks at a aircraft component March 9 with employee Robert Abernathy at the Rolls-Royce Crosspointe jet engine disc manufacturing facility in Prince George, Va. Some view Virginia’s community colleges as a model for workforce development.

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If you’ve followed the news recently, you’ve seen a lot about community colleges — and their opportunity to close the state’s “skills gap” — the thousands of high-paying, high-quality jobs that are sitting vacant because unemployed Massachusetts residents do not have the skills to fill them.

You’ve heard about Governor Patrick’s plan to improve community colleges by giving them additional resources, a mission more focused on 21st-century workforce development, and requiring additional accountability to make sure that we are embracing the best the system has to offer and building upon those successes.

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You might have also heard that this has been nothing more than a power grab, designed solely to eliminate local control, end opportunities for transfer to four-year schools and turn the community college system into nothing more than trade schools.

If anything in that last paragraph were true, we’d hate the idea, too.

Every year, more than 200,000 students, young and old, attend community colleges in Massachusetts. For them, community colleges play a critical role in their development as citizens, providers and workers.

We joined the statewide group of nearly 60 business and civic organizations in the Coalition for Community Colleges because we see what the community colleges can become — and the opportunities that are being missed by a system that is underfunded, uncoordinated, and not working to its potential for thousands of students and the state’s employers.

The goal of the governor’s plan, much of which was preserved in the House Ways and Means budget plan last week, was to tap into that potential. Today, the state’s 15 community colleges are orphans in our education landscape, with individual line items in the budget and no well-defined oversight or accountability. Their missions are not aligned with statewide needs. Their successes are measured anecdotally, and the only available data on their performance are nationally-used graduation rates that give the system low marks relative to the nation, when it comes to having full-time students earn their degrees in a timely fashion.

Don’t be misled. This is not a call for an end to local operational control or a return to manual training, nor does it mean community colleges should shed their critical role as an access point to four-year schools. But community college students deserve a system that is integrated and focused on their ultimate success both in college and in the dynamic environment of the 21st century workforce.

Today, by any measure, too many students drop out, often with student debt but without the credential they need to get a good job. Those who try to transfer to other community colleges or universities find no consistent path — just an ad hoc set of agreements among individual schools, credits that aren’t stackable, and differences in degree programs even within the community college system itself.

For employers, too, the system is difficult to navigate, with individual community colleges structuring their programs in individual ways, and requirements and programs that are not readily comparable from one campus to the next.

Other states are figuring this out. In Virginia, a highly aligned community college system with local campus control has become a powerful workforce partner for current and new employers. Last month, President Obama visited a Rolls-Royce plant there where community colleges, state colleges, and universities are working together to provide the highly-skilled workforce for a new generation of high-tech engines.

Here in Massachusetts, individual programs at many campuses offer workforce solutions and opportunities on a smaller scale. They are developed by local colleges with local businesses to address local needs — and we have no desire to end those local relationships or curtail local operational control of each college.

But we lose out when we let these programs operate in isolation, without stable funding or a secure future. And today, we have no means of knowing what works for whom — and there is no person or agency charged with replicating successful programs for other regions of the state.

The current budget plan in the House begins to address these issues by increasing oversight, investing in accountability measures, taking steps toward better integrating the colleges into the higher education system — and bringing together business leaders, college officials, and state leaders to create real systems for ensuring we fund the best programs, develop programs that serve local and regional needs, and address the weaknesses in the current system.

Today, programs that work don’t expand — and the number of students leaving community colleges with degrees and certificates in key growth sectors of our economy remains low. Employers and students agree — the skills gap is real. Community colleges can close it by both ensuring that they produce students with the skills to make it in the dynamic 21st-century workforce, and by ensuring that those who transfer have a clear path to ultimate success.

The current plan takes first steps in that direction. It is a critical start in a much longer journey. If we weaken the current proposal further, or fail to follow through on the goals we have set, we will look back on 2012 as a year of missed opportunity for a vital part of our education system. And we will jeopardize our future economic success.

Dan O’Connell, former Massachusetts secretary of housing and economic development in the Patrick administration, is president and CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership. Casey Recupero is the Boston executive director for Year Up.
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