Community Colleges and Career Education

Brian Coward is not what most people imagine when they think of a “college student.” Thirty-six years old, African American, from a low-income family in rural North Carolina, he tried college right out of high school, earning an associate degree in automotive systems. His passion was detailing ‎cars, but the business he started after college failed to take off, and his degree didn’t help much when he tried to get a toehold in the region’s scattered meatpacking and assembly plants.

So last year, when he heard that his alma mater Lenoir Community College was launching a “manufacturing academy”—a short, nondegree, evening program supported by several companies in the area—he jumped at the chance. When he finished the course 13 weeks later, he landed his dream job as a ‎composite technician for Spirit AeroSystems, the county’s premier manufacturing firm, producing state-of-the-art airplane parts for Airbus.

Mr. Coward’s experience and the now nearly decade-old relationship between Spirit AeroSystems and Lenoir Community College point to a new model of career preparation emerging nationwide. Programs vary widely. There’s no one-size-fits-all template. But the common feature is a short, career-focused program, often not credit-bearing, offered by a college working hand-in-hand with a local company or companies. The payoff for students, especially older students like Mr. Coward, is that they can acquire the skills they need for a job decoupled from the general education courses they would need for an associate degree.

Many educators are skeptical, but proponents see these decoupled options as a logical next step for the nation’s 1,100 community colleges—just the innovation they need to stay relevant in a changing economy.

Locally rooted and often modest in size, two-year public colleges educate more people each year than coding boot camps, apprenticeship programs, and government job training combined—more than 12 million students, compared to just 17,000 at boot camps and 160,000 in government training programs. Job training options are proliferating, particularly in the private sector, as employers across the country scramble to find the talent they need in a tight labor market. But many companies are choosing to partner with community colleges, which are often the most convenient and experienced training providers available.

The problem is that community colleges are highly uneven in quality. Many take on too many missions—traditional academic education, workforce training, remedial courses—and end up doing nothing well. Graduation rates are abysmal: even after six years, fewer than 40 percent of students earn a degree. Some schools have traditionally put a premium on preparing students for careers in nursing, the construction trades, and law enforcement, among other fields. But even for these schools, the new model emerging at Lenoir and elsewhere often represents a dramatic shift.

Among the most significant and controversial features of the new programs: many trainees don’t aim to earn degrees.

Most community colleges maintain nondegree “continuing education” or “workforce” divisions that offer courses à la carte and outside the usual semester schedule. Like much vocational education, they’re often seen as second-tier, especially in recent years as the nation doubled down on four-year college for everyone. Students in noncredit programs are not generally eligible for Pell Grants or other Title IV funding. The path to further postsecondary education can be murky or nonexistent. And programs vary widely, from career education for in-demand jobs to casual, recreational courses.

Yet the nondegree division is often the natural partner for a company in search of a training provider. Noncredit programs don’t have to answer to a faculty committee or accreditor, so they can respond more quickly and nimbly to the needs of an employer partner. And according to proponents, this is critical for effective cooperation. It puts the company in the driver’s seat.

Today’s new employer partnerships build on an older model of collaboration: “customized” training contracts between noncredit departments and companies seeking to school workers in a new technology or firm-specific skill. But programs like the Lenoir Community College manufacturing academy modify the old approach in a number of important ways. They often serve more than one employer, teach skills in demand across an industry, and are open to any students who apply, not just those designated by the client company.

When decoupled offerings work, they can be an all-around win for the company, the college and students. “Not every student needs the whole package,” explains Chauncy Lennon, Lumina Foundation vice president for the future of learning and work. “These programs let you purchase what you need when you need it to enter the workforce and start earning.”

To what extent are these new nondegree offerings driving change at community colleges? With more and more companies and colleges partnering to offer nondegree training, will this lead eventually to a shift of focus away from traditional academic preparation for transfer to a four-year institution—or even a new mission that prioritizes in-demand skills rather than academic degrees? It’s too soon to tell, but changes afoot at Lenoir Community College and other campuses suggest this could be so.

A State-Brokered Educator-Employer Partnership

Like many new-style nondegree programs, Lenoir’s manufacturing academy goes back to a more traditional kind of educator-employer partnership. The state of North Carolina originally brought company and college together as ‎part of the incentives package that lured Spirit AeroSystems, a global manufacturer based in Wichita, Kansas, to North Carolina in 2010. The firm considered several locations across the U.S., promising to invest some $570 million and create 1,000 jobs. But everywhere it looked, it faced the same challenge: recruiting a skilled workforce.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 484,000 manufacturing jobs stand empty today. Over the decade ending in 2025, Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute predict that the industry will need to fill some 3.5 million positions and as many as 2 million of them may go unfilled because of a shortage of skilled workers. Spirit wrestles with this problem at all its plants. North Carolina offered to pay to train a first cohort of workers if the firm built a facility in the state, as long as instruction was provided by a nearby community college.

Both company and college leapt at the opportunity. Lenoir administrators traveled to Wichita. They borrowed ideas from a Kansas college already training for the company. Personnel from Spirit and Lenoir worked together to customize curriculum. The college hired and trained additional faculty, then recruited and screened the first class of students for a 120-hour nondegree course in “aerospace manufacturing readiness.”

The key to the successful partnership, both parties recall, was collaborative trial and error, with the company in the lead. “We talked every day,” Lenoir vice president of continuing education Jay Carraway remembers. “The company gave us feedback, we responded. And when what we were doing didn’t work for them, we changed gears.”

The state’s $3 million training subsidy ended in 2015 when the plant was fully staffed. But there was no question on either side that the relationship would continue.

The partnership looks somewhat different today. There is still training for new employees to keep up with attrition and turnover at the plant. Other instruction is geared to existing workers. Company and college now split the cost of the program, including two faculty.

The payoff for the company is clear enough. Since 2010, Lenoir has trained 922 students to work in aerospace manufacturing, 746 of whom were hired by Spirit, and 56 percent of the current workforce in the plant came through the community college.

More than Training for a Single Company

But the partnership with Spirit AeroSystems was just a first step for Lenoir Community College. Over the years, administrators have worked to apply what they learned from that relationship to a range of other employer partnerships and other course offerings, some shorter, some longer, some credit-bearing, and some noncredit.

The first oncampus collaborative project was a traditional credit-bearing program: a new two-year degree in aerostructure manufacturing and repair. Students studied academic basics along with technical job skills. Graduates earned associate degrees. Several went to work at Spirit, and over the years, a few have moved up the ranks at the company. Houston Mann, 28, graduated in 2014 and was hired as an entry-level technician. Since then, he’s been promoted several times, most recently to training supervisor, thanks in part no doubt to what he learned in the associate degree program.

But Lenoir has also built on its experience with Spirit to launch a new nondegree option.

The target students are people like Brian Coward—older, midcareer and less likely to benefit from a traditional community college education. Most two-year institutions still see it as their mission to prepare students to transfer to four-year colleges, but just 14 percent of those who enroll in community colleges ever make that critical leap. And two-year students who choose the wrong major often find that their associate degrees have little value in the labor market.

A growing number of students appear to prefer a decoupled program that will help them get a job without the burden of the general education courses required for an academic degree. According to new research by University of Michigan scholar Peter Riley Bahr, many who go this route have thought through their options and decided that they don’t need credit. Bahr calls them “skills builders”: they return to community college to take just one or two specialized courses that will help them move up on the job, then leave without a credential, wasting no time getting back to work.

The Lenoir Community College manufacturing academy is designed for just this kind of learner. Launched in 2017, it’s a spinoff of the original Spirit partnership, but with a broader focus: it prepares students to work for any manufacturing firm in the region, not just aerospace. Several dozen local companies, including Spirit, support the program, as does the Lenoir County Manufacturers Association. And what makes it work, according to Lenoir, are lessons learned from the Spirit partnership about how flexible the college needs to be to keep up with employers’ changing labor needs.

Unlike the degree division of the college, which must admit any student who applies, the academy is selective. Students must be drug-free and proficient in applied math, graphic literacy, and other workplace skills, as measured by the ACT WorkKeys assessment. Many are older than traditional college students and already working in manufacturing. They receive 160 hours of instruction, usually evening classes. Supporting employers pay for scholarships and commit to interviewing graduates. A state grant covers the cost of a third-party, end-of-course assessment, and many students pay nothing.

Those who complete the program can earn up to four industry certifications, including Manufacturing Skills Standards Council recognition as certified production technicians. Half of the first cohort, already working in manufacturing, parlayed their new certifications into a raise or a promotion. Other graduates have gone to work for the region’s leading manufacturers, including Spirit AeroSystems, Smithfield Foods, Moen, and MasterBrand.

Even as Lenoir adds nondegree programs, the college is determined to build bridges between its credit and noncredit divisions.

Though many students come to the college for a quick, targeted course that will lead to a better job, some may return later in life for more education, potentially including an associate or bachelor’s degree, and Lenoir is making provision for them to earn college credit for their nondegree training. It took some persuading of the college’s academic faculty and state education administrators, but the industry certifications earned by students who complete the manufacturing academy now count toward a Lenoir associate degree, exempting them from nearly two-thirds of a semester.

This is an important breakthrough. For students, it’s the best of both worlds. They can take advantage of the flexibility of a nondegree program but also, eventually, earn college credit. And Lenoir offers several degree programs that build on topics covered at the manufacturing academy—in computer integrated machining, computer engineering, and industrial systems, among other subjects.

Every employer-educator partnership is different, and the short, nondegree option isn’t for everyone. Many companies and colleges prefer a program housed in the college’s credit division that leads to a degree as well as a job. And a growing number of firms are going a step further, opting for a full-scale apprenticeship program, almost always housed on the credit side of a partnering college.

No one knows how much of either kind of collaboration, credit or noncredit, exists across the U.S. There are no reliable national data on nondegree programs or employer-educator partnerships. But Lenoir Community College is hardly unique. The old stigma attached to noncredit programs is fading. Colleges across the country are adjusting to accommodate the new model, finding new ways to recognize learning short of a degree and bridge the gap between credit and noncredit divisions.

For students like Brian Coward, it’s hard to imagine a better path. And looking ahead, demand can only grow, as more and more workers who are displaced from routine jobs need to retool midcareer, learning new skills to keep up with changing workplace technology.

Tamar Jacoby is president of Opportunity America, a Washington-based nonprofit working to promote economic mobility.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College