Over the past few decades, the US economy has seen the decline of the middle class along with worsening inequality. Historically, community colleges have been a reliable pathway to upward economic mobility for those who do not attend a four-year university. Yet insufficient funding for community colleges has limited this impact.
In addition to low funding, rapid technological progress makes it difficult for community colleges to keep up with the changing demands of the labor market. Are community colleges still a reliable pathway to upward economic mobility? Or, as the criticism goes, are they out of step with the emerging skills and occupations that stand to offer the most opportunities to their students?
In this study, Michel Grosz uses administrative and employment data to better understand this perceived gap in skills training. This study of California community colleges, the largest public education system in the US, contributes important empirical evidence to this debate. The research links program-level data (enrollment, completion, and faculty hiring) to occupation-level data (wages, employment, and education levels) from the US Census. The study covers 1993 to 2016, painting a sharp picture of the relationship between labor market demand and program offerings at community colleges in California.
- Occupations in which the share of employment grows by 1 percentage point see their share of degrees and certificates grow by 0.5 percentage points.
- This relationship is primarily driven by student demand rather than by colleges expanding capacity by hiring more faculty or increasing course offerings. Although this is not a perfect relationship, it does indicate that community college students are at least somewhat responsive to labor market changes.
- Some California community colleges are more responsive to changing labor market demands than others. There is little difference between colleges in low- and high-density areas of the state. But colleges in counties with high unemployment rates are more responsive than their counterparts. This finding is consistent with other research that shows individuals seek out postsecondary training for in-demand occupations during economic downturns.
Policy and practice implications
WorkRise has identified the following implications for policy and practice:
- Policymakers should direct more funding to community colleges. These institutions have long played an important role in training essential workers and nontraditional students, in programs ranging from nursing to welding. With proper funding, community colleges can be more responsive to the changing needs of local labor markets by hiring more faculty and increasing course offerings, thereby better preparing students for in-demand occupations with high potential for upward economic mobility.
- Employers and community college leaders should foster strong relationships to identify in-demand skills, cocreate curriculums, and incorporate work-based learning. These partnerships can create a reliable talent pipeline for local employers, pathways to good quality jobs for learners, and stronger outcomes for community college students.
- Researchers should replicate this study with community college systems in other states. This study only covers California’s community college system, which is large and diverse but may not be representative of national community college trends. More data on the relationship between program offerings and employment in other states could help illuminate important trends across the country.
Community colleges have been tasked with a major responsibility—to train and support socioeconomic mobility and serve their local communities—without sufficient funding to back it up. Despite this, the relationship between community college training and labor market demands is somewhat reliable, thanks to students enrolling in training for newly in-demand occupations. These students deserve more support as they further their education and enter the labor market as a means to achieve upward economic mobility for themselves and their families.