Leaders from Labor and Commerce Departments Address Higher Ed Advocates; Congressional Community College Forum

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By: Mark Toner
Also: Kids on Campus Launches Nationwide, Rep. Virginia Foxx Encourages 'Transformative Change'

On Tuesday morning, senior leaders of the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Labor emphasized how their departments are working together to ensure that the Biden Administration’s investments in physical infrastructure are matched by more equitable investments in human infrastructure.

“I think of our workforce system as our infrastructure too,” said Acting Secretary of Labor Julie A. Su. “Like our roads and bridges, the workforce system needs some work… too many people have been left out of the promise of a good job. We say to that, not this time.” 

Calling community colleges “the critical entry point to a secure future,” Su stressed the importance of developing durable community partnerships that span multiple fields and ensure that “training programs shouldn’t end in a job search. They should end in an actual job,” she said.

Alejandra Y. Castillo, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, stressed the importance of “consistent and long-term funding” for community colleges. (Photo: Keith Weller for ACCT)

“Economic development is not episodic. It’s not a one-off,” Castillo said. “Our country cannot just start and stop and think we have the strength to compete with countries around the world.”

Following the morning keynote addresses, ACCT and the National Head Start Association (NHSA) launched the joint partnership Kids on Campus, a new initiative designed to bring more Head Start centers to more community college campuses throughout the country. The initiative is supported by ECMC Foundation, Imaginable Futures, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Trellis Foundation, Crimsonbridge Foundation, and Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation.

Also released during the Summit were the new ACCT paper Innovating Workforce Education: Community Colleges at the Forefront of Registered Apprenticeship supported by Lumina Foundation and findings of the latest Digital Pulse Learning Survey from Cengage and Bay View Analytics with support from ACCT and others, which reveals that while generative AI could ease ongoing challenges in higher education, only one in five higher-ed leaders feels prepared to use AI. Both sets of findings were previewed to Summit attendees yesterday.

Tuesday’s Congressional Forum on Capitol Hill brought a bipartisan group of lawmakers to a packed room of community college trustees, presidents, and advocates.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) called Florida’s state colleges “a secret weapon.”

Noting his efforts to create career academies in high school and four-year degree programs at the state’s community colleges while in the Florida legislature, Bilirakis emphasized that short-term Pell grants represent a practical approach to workforce development. “It’s a win-win for all of us,” he said.

Pointing to the dramatic job growth of the past two years, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) warned that “job growth will be meaningless unless we can train people unless we can train people to take those good jobs. And that’s where community colleges come in.”

As ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Scott noted that the committee has made bipartisan efforts to address workforce needs, including the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act and efforts to expand the Pell Grant program to short-term workforce programs. He also touted the House Democrats’ Roadmap for College Student Success, which he called “a comprehensive vision for updating our higher education system.” 

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) described efforts to reinstate the bipartisan community college caucus, which he called “a really helpful mechanism” to communicate the needs of the community college sector. Courtney urged NLS attendees to encourage lawmakers to join the caucus, stressing its importance in amplifying advocacy efforts like the NLS.

“The size of this crowd speaks volumes about the passion you bring to this really incredibly important issue for our country,” he said.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) described bipartisan support for the 2018 reauthorization of the Perkins career and technical education program and urged community college advocates to support two current bills. The first, the College Transparency Act, would allow “parents and students to shop to be able to shop for their education,” Krishnamoorthi said. “And when they shop for their education, they find good values at your community colleges.” The second, the Opportunity to Compete Act, would require employers to not screen out job candidates without four-year degrees. “At the end of the day, it’s about acquiring skills and capabilities, not about degrees,” he said. “That’s the type of economy we’re moving towards, and that’s the one I believe you are training your students for as well.”

Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and Workforce, told community college leaders during the final day of the National Legislative Summit that the "environment is ripe for transformative change."

Speaking at Wednesday morning’s NLS closing keynote, Foxx updated attendees on three key pieces of higher ed legislation that have been successfully voted out of the House committee with bipartisan support.  The Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act, which would allow Pell Grants to fund short-term training programs, "will be your path to upskilling and reskilling students quickly for in-demand jobs," Foxx said. If signed into law, the bill would create a quality assurance system for workforce Pell grant programs, align programs with high-demand fields, and minimize time for implementation of programs. Foxx said if these changes are not made, "you'll be left tackling the skills gap with one hand tied behind your back.”

The A Stronger Workforce for America Act, which would reauthorize the Workforce Opportunity and Innovation Act (WOIA), is intended to "enhance the role community colleges play in the workforce system," Foxx said.  The bill would also “improve and codify" the Strengthening Community Colleges Training Grants program to better support workforce education programs that align with in-demand jobs and involve industry partnerships, she said.

Foxx also urged attendees to support a third bill approved by the committee, the College Cost Reduction Act. While the bill’s risk sharing provision has "created misplaced hesitancy," Foxx said, its accountability formula is identical to the value added earnings formula which would be used for Workforce Pell. “If you support Workforce Pell, you should support the CCRA and fight just as hard for it,' Foxx said. "Both are aimed at maximizing student success, which is what you should be all about -- ensuring that graduates receive positive value from their credential."

A policy analysis suggests that the vast majority of community colleges -- almost 90 percent -- would benefit financially if CCRA becomes law, Foxx told NLS attendees. "I urge you to be confident... because it's high time your institutions are rewarded for their unique value," she said, urging leaders to "advocate for three bills, not just two, when you leave here today."

Foxx concluded what she said would be her last time addressing the NLS as committee chair by crediting the "historic and uniquely American role that community colleges play in society."

"The thousand-strong network of community colleges represented here today might be the single most American institution," she said.

More than 1,300 community college trustees, presidents, and advocates—including more than 120 community college students—attended the 2024 National Legislative Summit from Feb. 4-7.

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About ACCT

The Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) is a non-profit educational organization of governing boards, representing more than 6,500 elected and appointed trustees who govern over 1,200 community, technical, and junior colleges in the United States and beyond. For more information, go to Follow ACCT on Twitter @CCTrustees.