Repaving the Path from College to Career

The U.S. needs a better way to evaluate what an older or non-traditional student can do.

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When Cheryl Hyman became chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago four years ago, she found herself leading a system so broken that its graduation rate stood in the single digits. To make it really work, Hyman would have to show a real connection to work – providing students with a clear and attainable career path.

To that end, Hyman studied labor market data, identifying six growing industries, from health science to information technology, all of which included STEM components. Working with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, City Colleges set up centers of discipline among its campuses in a wide-reaching program, aptly named “Colleges to Careers.” Now boasting some 200 partnerships with industry and four-year colleges, the program gives students exposure to industries and credit for field work while ensuring curricula keeps pace with the demands of its partners. As a result, it’s become a model of private-public partnerships that seize the potential of community colleges to train a 21st-century workforce.

[SPECIAL REPORT: The U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index]

“Colleges to Careers meant relevancy,” Hyman said in Thursday’s panel, “Fast Track to Success,” at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference in Washington, D.C. But in revamping community colleges to meet this goal, she posed a central question: “How do you change the whole, making sure you get all the parts right?”

The answer: You get everyone working together, from the private sector to government leaders and K-12 school systems, according to Stanley Litow, IBM’s vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs and president of IBM International Foundation. “No more finger-pointing. No more throwing brickbats at each other,” he said. “We have a problem of crisis proportions, and its not in one city or one state; it is a U.S.-wide problem.”

Litow played a key role in the development of New York City’s landmark P-TECH program, a grade nine through 14 enterprise that upon completion gives students an associate degree and first dibs at entry-level jobs at IBM. Lauded by President Obama in last year’s State of the Union address and now being replicated across New York and Connecticut, P-TECH is a partnership among the New York City Department of Education, New York City College of Technology, City University of New York and the IBM Corporation. That kind of collaboration could transform American commerce, Litow argued, describing a domino effect: “More students are going to be able to take 21st- century jobs, and U.S. companies are going to be competitive, and they’re going to be looking to fill those jobs and expand their workforce in the United States … If that doesn’t happen, it’s going to hurt all of us.”

But what about the older students that go to community colleges? Rey Garcia, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, noted that the average age of his students is 27. “We don’t have a systematic way to evaluate those credentials,” he said, calling on the academy and industry to assign them value. “Right now it’s a hodgepodge.”

The panelists agreed on a need for more and better data about their students and the workforce to help bridge the gap between them.

As Hyman put it, success hinges on not simply closing the so-called skills gap but also addressing the “information gap” – defining the jobs available and the skills needed to land them. And she emphasized the need for multiple solutions to the problem at hand.

Sharing and showing value among all stakeholders will yield success, Litow said. “If we’re going to get to this issue about using data analytics to solve this program for every community college, for every school system and for every business, it doesn’t have to exist in thousands of individual institutions, it could be done for everyone,” he said, arguing for a comprehensive approach to the problem. “We just need leadership, and we need partnership.”

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