Crucial higher education bill introduced in Senate to round out Community College Compact

By Katie Brown, June 03, 2019

Last week, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), joined by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Tina Smith (D-MN), introduced the Community College to Career Fund in Higher Education Act (S. 1612) in the Senate. This important bill aims to support crucial partnerships between community colleges and businesses—allowing for increased access to high-quality education and training options for students seeking 21st century skills.

The introduction of the Community College to Career Fund in Higher Education Act means that all four National Skills Coalition’s Community College Compact policies have been introduced as legislation. The Community College Compact is a set of four higher education policy recommendations informed and vetted by workforce development practitioners. These policies were designed to be collectively considered by Congress as they work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA)—a sweeping federal policy governing postsecondary programs and student financial aid that has not been updated since 2008.

The Community College to Career Fund in Higher Education Act would authorize the Secretaries of Education and Labor to make competitive grant funding available to community and technical colleges that commit to partnering with workforce development stakeholders to give students more access to skills. To be approved for funding, community and technical colleges are required to submit an application to the Secretaries detailing the education and workforce training programs or activities that will be offered under the grant, how these programs or activities will meet the needs of employers and students in the area, and the methodology by which the success of these programs will be measured.

Under the legislation, grant recipients are permitted to use funds to offset the cost of a range of activities, including expanding articulation agreements, enhancing student support services, building linkages between secondary education or adult education and literacy programs, and developing or improving education and training programs that lead to recognized postsecondary credentials. Grants made by the Secretaries under this bill can last up to five years.

Federal funding for valuable industry partnerships has been lacking since the expiration of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program in 2014. We applaud Senator Duckworth’s efforts to strengthen these partnerships at the federal level—a policy change that will lead to student and employer success in today’s economy.

Given the skill needs of students and employers in today’s economy, where 80 percent of jobs require some form of education or training beyond the high school level, the modernization of our nation’s higher education policy through the adoption of Senator Duckworth’s bill as well as the balance of the Community College Compact bills is more important than ever before. Notably, the Compact’s policies are overwhelmingly supported by voters and business leaders who want to see higher education change for the better.

In addition to Senator Duckworth’s bill, the policy proposals that make up the Community College Compact are:

Extend federal financial aid to high-quality, short-term programs by passing the JOBS Act (S.839)

Many students today are enrolling in postsecondary education in pursuit of the skills and credentials they need to successfully compete in today’s economy. However, this does not mean that employers are solely looking to hire candidates with two or four-year degrees. In fact, more than half of all jobs today can be classified as “middle-skill,” meaning they require a high school diploma, but not a college degree.

Despite this reality, students are required to enroll in postsecondary programs that are at least 600 clock hours over 15 weeks of instruction in order to qualify for crucial federal financial aid, including needs-based Pell grants. This policy leaves students enrolling in shorter-term programs behind, despite these programs leading to employer-valued credentials.

To address this inequity, Senators Kaine (D-VA) and Portman (R-OH) introduced the JOBS Act, which would allow students enrolling in postsecondary programs that are at least 150 clock hours over 8 weeks of instruction to qualify for Pell grants—so long as the programs meet the quality assurance criteria outlined in the legislation.

Increase the transparency of postsecondary education and workforce data by adopting the College Transparency Act (S. 800, HR 1766)

Currently, the Higher Education prohibits the Department of Education from collecting data on all postsecondary students. The Department’s existing College Scorecard only includes students receiving federal aid in the calculation of key metrics, like post-college earnings. This presents an incomplete picture of how well higher education and training programs are serving students.

To address this, Senators Warren (D-MA) and Cassidy (R-LA) and Representatives Mitchell (R-MI) and Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) introduced the College Transparency Act—a bipartisan bill aimed at helping students, policymakers, educators and employers make informed decisions when it comes to postsecondary education. The College Transparency Act proposes to overturn the outdated prohibition on data collection while putting a number of safeguards in place to protect student privacy.

Dedicate federal funding to career pathways by passing the Gateway to Careers Act (S. 1117)

To help meet the needs of these students, community and technical colleges along with their industry partners have been working to establish and strengthen career pathways—21st century learning models that combine support services with academic instruction.

Despite the value of career pathways, there is a lack of targeted federal funding to help sustain and strengthen them. As a solution, Senators Hassan (D-NH), Young (R-IN), Kaine (D-VA) and Gardner (R-CO) re-introduced the Gateway to Careers Act—a bipartisan bill first introduced in 2018 that makes grant funding available on a competitive basis to institutions that are working in partnership with industry stakeholders, community-based organizations and other entities to better serve students experiencing barriers to postsecondary access and completion.

National Skills Coalition applauds the introduction of these bills and looks forward to working with policymakers to advance them through the legislative process.