The New Economic Development Role of the Community College

Dougherty, Kevin J.; Bakia, Marianne F.

Community colleges have long been involved in workforce preparation and economic development—in the form of the occupational education of students. But in the last two decades, community colleges have greatly broadened their economic development role to include contract training, small-business incubation and assistance, and local economic planning. Contract training. Over 90 percent of community colleges offer contract training. Unlike traditional occupational education, contract training involves an outside party—a business or a government agency—rather than the individual student as the primary client. The contractor largely determines who receives the training and the content of the training. Even if the content is little different from a college’s traditional vocational offerings, contract training programs are customized to the contractor’s requirements in other regards, such as where, when, and how the training is delivered. Rigorous studies of the impact of contract training on trainees and their employers are scarce. The studies available do show positive effects on both, but the data are too sparse to allow definitive conclusions. However, more definite findings are available about the impact on community colleges themselves. Contract training boosts enrollments and revenues. It enlarges business's external support for, and internal involvement in, the community college. It changes the content of the vocational courses and the liberal arts courses servicing them. It raises the standing of continuing education faculty, but brings them into conflict with traditional vocational faculty. And more speculatively, there is evidence that contract training may erode the commitment of community colleges to traditional liberal arts values, transfer education, and remedial education. Small-business assistance and incubation. Over a third of community colleges offer advice and training to small firms in such things as management, personnel practices, marketing, finance, and work practices, and a few even provide nascent firms with low-cost space and administrative support. Although small-business assistance brings in little money, it apparently brings community colleges some new students and strengthens their base of political support. The effects on the client firms themselves are less clear, however. Local economic planning. This is the newest and least-charted dimension of the colleges’ new economic role. This new activity includes scanning the environment for economic, social, and political developments and passing this information on to employers, government agencies, and the public at large. Also many community colleges have joined local economic planning organizations and even convened meetings of local political and economic leaders to shape economic development policy. Finally, community colleges have even lobbied local, state, and federal government in favor of certain economic policies. Based largely on anecdotal evidence, this new role seems to help community colleges get more contract training requests and solidify their ties to local business and government agencies. However, it also carries the risk of ensnaring the colleges in local political conflicts. Research and policy recommendations. Data on the impact of the new economic role on trainees, firms, and community colleges are relatively scarce. In particular, we need much more research on the impacts of community college efforts in the areas of small business assistance and local economic planning. Moreover, we should more closely investigate the impact of contract training on the colleges’ commitment to transfer and remedial education and on businesses shouldering their proper share of the cost of employee training. On the policy side, as community colleges deepen their role in workforce preparation and economic development, public policies need to be devised to bolster the colleges’ commitment to general education, baccalaureate preparation, and remedial education.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Community College Research Center
Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
April 4, 2014