By Josh Kelety | Campus News and Opinion Editor
What is the role and purpose of community colleges? Are they educational institutions, providers of workforce training, or both?
Here at Seattle Central differing educational philosophies are abundant, giving off the impression that our school is in the middle of an identity crisis.
The Mission (and mandate)
The Seattle College District (SCD) has a very clearly outlined mission statement and vision for the role Seattle’s community colleges will play in society. “It’s the workforce mission, it’s the transfer mission, it’s the basic skills mission,” says SCD Chancellor Jill Wakefield.
According to Seattle Central’s mission statement, the college provides “opportunities for academic achievement, workforce preparation, and service to the community.”
All community colleges in the State are defined in almost identical terms, with the Washington State Legislaturerequiring, since 1991, that all these institutionsoffer comprehensive education in the form of transfer degree education, workforce training, and basic education. (Strictly technical & professional degree colleges are the only exception, and do not have to offer transfer degree programs.)
This vision extends to the Federal Government, with President Barack Obama recently calling for a massiverevamp of community and technical colleges to fit current market demand via job training and certification. The Federal government has alsoallocated $450 million in grants for community colleges nationally to use in expanding and updating workforce programs.
“Current research has indicated that there are over 10 million US citizens unemployed RIGHT NOW. Yet, there are 4 million unfilled family-wage jobs RIGHT NOW [sic],” writes Warren Brown, Vice President of Student Instruction & Services at Seattle Central.
Seattle Central has roots in workforce training, having transitioned from Broadway High School in 1946 to Edison Technical School, an institution designed to help returning veterans from WWII find employment.
However, some view community colleges’ workforce-training function as a short-term solution to structural problems of poverty and inequality. They worry that workforce training will be more beneficial to private sector interests than to students and society as a whole.
“It should be about education, about citizenship, about responsibility, accountability, civic engagement. That’s what it should be. Nowadays it isn’t, nowadays its all about work, the job market,” says Mohammed Al-Madani, an anthropology and political science professor at Seattle Central.
The ‘viability’ criterion of program offerings
Seattle Central is primarily a transfer school, with 53% of students classified as ‘transfer’ and 28.51% in workforce training programs as of 2013, according to Brown. The remaining 17-20% of students are enrolled in the basic education area (ESL & GED programs).
The college offers a wide variety of job-training-related paths for students, including career-specific trainings, certifications, and academic transfer degrees, ranging from the Culinary Arts to Web Design.
Program and class offerings at Seattle Central are evaluated on a variety of factors. Transfer degree classes are still insulated from outside economic market dynamics, and are judged by their operating cost, the transferability of class credits, and student enrollment. Professional and technical programs are evaluated by similar but slightly different criteria, based on student demand, operating cost, private sector demand, and graduate employment rates.
Professional and Technical degree programs are regularly adjusted or dropped based on these factors. The Print Publishing and Film & Video technical programs were cut in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, ostensibly due to low employer demand and high operating costs. A floristry program at South Seattle College was also closed due to a shortage of available jobs paying a livable wage in the industry.
“It just depends on where the demand is,” says Michael Pham, Vice President of Administrative Services at Seattle Central.
To keep pace with the economy, Seattle Central collaborates with employers to fit technical and professional training offerings with the labor demands of the market. This outreach comes in the form of ‘technical advisory committees’ which connect the college with a network of employers, unions, and industry experts who help design programs.
Market demand also influences community college funding. While institutions like Seattle Central have autonomy over the majority of their funding, some of it comes with strings attached from the state. For instance, the legislature might allocate workforce training funding ‘pots’ for a certain number of student FTE’s (full time enrollment) in a given industry area. According to Wakefield, these allocations are usually comparatively small to the rest of the District’s public financing.
“They [state legislature] said, you know if we are going to keep aerospace [in the state] we have to make sure that the colleges are training in aerospace,” said Wakefield in reference to an example of industry specific FTE’s.
South Seattle College is currently the only institution in the district offering aerospace industry related programs. The most growth in Seattle Colleges’ workforce training programs has been, and is projected to remain, in healthcare support, administrative support, and information technologies, according to both Wakefield and SCD research showcasing forecast data on future market demand.
Differing views on economic market integration into education
There are those who view market-driven technical and professional education at community colleges as a camouflaged way of publicly subsidizing the private sector.
“It seems like [colleges are] expected to subsidize corporations; why can’t they train people themselves?” said Richard Curtis, a professor of philosophy at Seattle Central. “We are fitting a need the world has, but we’re not asking how the world should be.”
Last year Boeing received the largest state tax subsidy to a company or corporation in the history of the United States, amounting to a total of $8.7 billion in tax breaks until 2040. The deal was made in an effort to keep the manufacturing of Boeing’s new 777x airplane in Washington State. Everett Community College, located just north of Seattle, is known for providing over 1000 employees per year to the Boeing corporation via aerospace education & training, illustrating to some how the private sector uses publicly funded colleges as a replacement for expensive in-house training.
“[Higher education] has gone wrong somewhere, and it has to do with having brought the institutions into the economic fold rather than trying to protect them by keeping them out of it,” said Charles Malody, an English professor at Seattle Central.
Others view the integration and collaboration of the public and private sector in a more positive light, saying that community colleges and employers should share the burden of training employees.
“I think it is a marriage,” said SCC President Paul Killpatrick. “It’s beneficial for [employers], it’s beneficial for the students, it’s beneficial for the community. We are training people for them.”
Pham said that a combined responsibility between colleges and employers should make up work force trainings, and that public/private partnerships would be the “ideal way” of facilitating this balance, given the tight financial constraints community colleges have operated under since the 2008 recession. He said that while the operating costs of technical and professional programs are generally more expensive than those attached to transfer degree courses due to the necessary facilities and equipment, tuition charged to students for such programs is the same across the board.
“I think it could be better if there was more of that [business partnerships]. So anyone [employers] can say ‘I need more employees in whatever field, I’m gonna come to you and put my money where my mouth is and here’s $1,000 to start this [training] program’,” he added.
The SCD is in the process of drafting an ‘Educational Master Plan‘ intended to reshape and expand pre-existing professional and technical degree programs to fit projected economic circumstances, increase business partnerships, and customize industry-specific trainings.
Is workforce training directed towards certain demographics?.
Currently, the demographics of workforce training programs vary substantially by field and institution, but at Seattle Vocational Institute (a subsidiary institution of SCC)—where the program offerings are limited to technical training and basic education—the student population is 53% Black as of 2013, with 14% White and the rest composed of other various minority groups. The ethnic breakdown of Seattle Central transfer degree students contrasts against that of technical and professional degree track students at SVI’s workforce-oriented student body. Central’s AA programs are 47% White, 15% Black, 18% Asian, and 13% multi-racial; demographics in SCC workforce programs are about the same.
2010 Census Bureau data shows that out of the roughly 15% of the Seattle population living in poverty, 35% were Black, 25.8% Latino, 14.8% Asian, and 10% White, highlighting a significant racial disparity in the city’s poverty demographics.
The SCD Educational Master Plan indicates that the District will increase general efforts to reach out to underserved population demographics.
According to Sarah Dean, the Public Information Officer at SVI, the institution regularly does outreach and marketing specifically to African-American and Latino communities in Seattle—for example, through targeted radio ads. In addition, SVI’s Bright Future Program targets underprivileged high school students with low GPAs and provides support and assistance to help them get their diplomas and enroll at SVI.
James Wells, a father, and a two time convicted felon who came out of the rough-and-tumble of Seattle’s inner city in the 1990s, says that attending the Network Design & Administration technical degree program at Seattle Central has been a positive and life-changing experience.
“I was wandering around with no direction, and that’s how I ended up in prison,” said Wells. “So far it has been the best thing I’ve done in my life next to having my son.”
Wells receives financial assistance from the Washington State’s version of the Federally mandated Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program via the WA Department of Social and Health Services. This program requires him to either find a job or commit to an employment preparation program to keep receiving funds.
Bryan Rullan, a faculty member who teaches in the Medical Assistant Certification Program at SVI, described technical training (particularly for disadvantaged students) as a stepping stone. “It’s short term, they can earn a livable wage, they can provide for their family,” said Rullan. He also says that by giving underserved populations immediate access to decent-paying jobs these students can eventually save up funds and pursue further higher education.
According to data listed on the SCD website, salaries for healthcare industry jobs that the District colleges provide training for range from $20,000 to $40,000 for positions such as a medical assistants and nursing aides. Jobs such as dental hygienists and registered nurses are outliers, making roughly $80,000 and $60,000 respectively.
However, tuition for higher education at all levels is skyrocketing as state funding for public institutions continues to decline. Tuition for one full-time in-state student at a Washington community college is currently around $4,000 for one academic year (3 quarters), compared to $1,982 during the early 2000s. Nationally, both two-year and four-year public colleges mirror this trend.
Alfred Griswold, the Associate Vice President of Workforce Education at both Seattle Central and SVI, described workforce training and education as an “effective solution to combating poverty”.
“Community colleges with workforce training programs like Seattle Central provide access and opportunity, so people in our community can learn marketable skills so they can get jobs and ultimately support themselves and their families,” he said.
Kimberly McRae, Co-President of AFT Seattle and Counselor of the Social and Human Services professional degree program at Seattle Central, disagrees.
“What you are doing is continuing to perpetuate that slave mentality. Because what you are doing is teaching them that all you [the student] are good enough to do or be is to be a worker. And that is not what gets people from poverty to the higher levels,” said McRae. “Why should people of color, those from marginalized communities, have this very limited-limited focus [i.e. workforce training] so that they can get a job that in ten years down the road might go away, and then they will have to go and get another job?”
Does workforce training cultivate a narrowed perspective?
Workforce training is designed to rigorously prepare students for future employment. Consequently, there are few components of the curriculum that deviate from the area of job preperation.To be accredited and approved by the Washington State Board of Technical and Community Colleges all technical degrees and certificate programs must require at least some general education, known as the ‘Academic Core.’ This core is composed of classes that provide skills in basic English composition, computer science, speech abilities, social interaction, and quantitative reasoning. The combination and amount of credit requirements from each area depends on the type of degree/certificate program, with one to two year certificates requiring 10-15 credits, 18 for AAS degrees, and 20 for the AAS-Transfer.
Wakefield cited critical thinking, communication, and quantitative abilities as desired outcomes in every technical program at District colleges. But the definitions and purposes of such traits vary depending on who you talk to.
“I would say in our technical programs that [critical thinking] is defined a little bit differently than in the liberal arts where you’re talking about social issues,” said Wakefield.
“We shouldn’t be making workforce machines,” says Pedro Marquez, a Seattle Central student and the Executive of Student Services with the Associated Student Council. “We should be making thinking people, [who] are questioning things, [who] are mobilizing, [who] are coming together.”
“To make that [job training] as the sole focus of the system is dangerous. You have people who won’t even vote,” says al-Madani.
Forest Mcintyere, a student in the SCC Web Design technical degree program, said that he hasn’t had to take any gen-ed prerequisites that didn’t directly pertain to his program area. He described his track as being very “narrow and to the point.” This is his first time going to college, and he doesn’t plan to pursue further higher education upon receiving his degree.
Wells says that at times he doesn’t feel like he’s learning much (apart from job training) in his program and that some of his peers who went down the same track feel similarly. “People who graduate from the program [Network Design & Administration], they all have the same story. They’re all like ‘I didn’t feel like I was learning anything’ but once they get into a work field they’re like ‘oh, I get it now!’”
Some workforce training tracks are an exception and already have a foundation of liberal arts due to the nature of the technical field, such as the Allied Health health care industry programs. “In nursing we spend a lot of time in integrating ethics and diversity pieces so students know what they’re dealing with,” said David Gourd, Dean of the Allied Health Division at Seattle Central. He cited looking at “health care disparities” among patients in the context of larger social issues as being a crucial component for students in health care industry programs.
The Social & Human Services program curriculum also requires a plethora of humanities and social sciences related content.
There are students who already have bachelor’s degrees and are coming to community colleges to retrain in hopes of obtaining future employment, making gen-ed requirements redundant and irrelevant.
Curtis Melvin is a veteran and student at Seattle Central studying in the Database Design & Administration Program. Though Melvin already has a BA in Communications he has returned to school to retrain for the new economy. He used to have a high-paying job in the mortgage industry, but due to the burst of the housing bubble in 2008 he lost his job and much of the wealth he had amassed.
Sarah Larson is in a similar position. Having originally majored in Anthropology and Environmental Studies, she is back in school at Seattle Central taking the Network Design & Administration program out of personal interest and a desire to obtain employment through her technical degree.
But the majority of students in workforce training don’t have bachelor’s degrees, meaning that the limited gen-ed requirements built into their program are potentially their only exposure to the liberal arts side of higher education. According to Wakefield, only 16% of workforce education students at SCC already have BAs, and only 4% at SVI, as of 2013.
“When you know how to communicate, and research, and think, you have a bit more power in the world,” said McRae. “People who go into these track programs, they don’t have all of these other things [liberal arts] to pull from so they have a very limited perspective.”
Separation of liberal arts/workforce training
Liberal arts transfer programs are also limited in their own way, particularly in terms of immediate economic benefit. The standard liberal arts AA transfer degree includes no technical skill training within its curriculum requirements, and the same holds true for most similar tracks at four year institutions. Initial unemployment upon graduation for college students who majored in the liberal arts is notoriously high. A 2010 American Community Survey national study showed that unemployment among graduates of the humanities/liberal arts was at 9.4%. However, other studies have found that in the long-term liberal arts majors do fairly well in terms of employment and financial earnings.
With AA and workforce training programs somewhat exclusive of each other, a degree of separation exists between two student bodies, which prevents valuable exchange of perspectives.
Wells was originally on a liberal arts transfer track, but felt that he couldn’t connect with his fellow students, professors, or the program in general due to his different life experiences and the infrequent availability of transfer degree advisors. He cited his upbringing in a “street environment” as making it difficult to transition to an academic setting. “The hardest thing for me first when I got to school was trying to fit in,” said Wells.
Once Wells got into his professional degree program, he found that the diversity of backgrounds among his fellow students cultivated a sense of social acceptance and community. His classmates range from older students retraining to immigrants still learning English and trying to quickly plug into the workforce. “You have a group of people who all have these hurdles to jump over and that’s what links us together,” he said.
Killpatrick praises these sorts of family atmospheres, dubbing them “tribal cohorts” and saying that these dynamics should be encouraged in every program at Seattle Central.
While promoting positive, welcoming, and accepting class atmospheres is always beneficial, limiting such environments to the confines of individual program tracks allegedly further stratifies the overall student body, discouraging some from being exposed to classes, viewpoints, and experiences outside of their “tribal cohort”.
“Workforce and liberal arts students have a lot in common and also can enrich each other’s perspectives,” said Brown, the SCC Vice President of Student Affairs & Instruction.
There have been community-based educational experiments that were centered around exposing underserved populations to the liberal arts. The Clemente Course, a free, accredited, college-level 10-month humanities course for disadvantaged students originally based in New York’s Lower East Side has produced promising results and continues to do so.
When the program was first piloted in 1995 by educator and author Earl Shorris, it targeted the very bottom end of the American prosperity/poverty spectrum: poor and low-wage workers, the unemployed, ex-convicts, addicts and the homeless. The course gave them an intensive curriculum of philosophy, history, art, logic and literature. By the end of it, 10 of the 16 graduates were attending four-year colleges and the others were either studying at community college or working full time. (The only exception was a young woman who had been fired from her job at a fast-food restaurant for trying to start a union.)
Richard Blanco is an engineer who went back to community college to study the humanities. He is now a nationally acclaimed poet who read at Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential inauguration (and, more recently, on April 28th in Seattle Central’s Broadway Performance Hall). ”What we [American society] don’t understand is that we should be teaching art in the most dire of circumstances,” he said.
Blanco raises the question that seems to stimulate much of the discussion on the purpose of higher education. What is more beneficial for society in the long-term: a well-trained, efficient, and specialized work force? Or an educated and thinking populace willing to challenge the status quo? Most see the answer as a combination of both, the question being how to balance and integrate the two effectively and give students a variety of valuable educational content and perspectives outside of their given degree track.