PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. secretaries of education and labor toured a job-training center and dropped in on a community college summit on Monday to promote collaborations that help adult learners join the workforce and obtain college degrees.
Skilled, educated workers are critical in getting the country back on its feet economically and to attaining President Barack Obama’s goal of leading the world in college graduates by 2020, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
“I feel a sense of urgency,” Duncan said. “A lot of countries are out-educating us today.”
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced in January that the department would award $2 billion in grants to community colleges and other two-year institutions over the next four years, including $500 million this year.
The funding program, being jointly administered with the Department of Education, is designed to help the schools expand, create or improve job training programs to meet the needs of local businesses.
On Monday, Duncan and Solis started the morning in downtown Philadelphia at the District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund, a labor-management partnership of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees.
They visited several classes, including one that teaches adult students about electronic health records. The course is designed in partnership with local hospitals and colleges to ensure the skills being taught are those needed both in the marketplace and for admission to higher education, said executive director Cheryl Feldman.
“It shows a spotlight on the importance of an integrated model that integrates academic preparation and occupational training into one program,” Feldman said.
Naeemah Felder, an unemployed, single mother of four, told Duncan and Solis that she and many other students were “ecstatic” to be in the health records class, which is free.
“If we did it on our own, we wouldn’t be able to afford (it),” said Felder, 39.
Solis said that $122 million in funding would be awarded this spring to community colleges offering similar career pathway programs for in-demand fields such as health care, information technology and renewable energy.
“Today’s visit allowed us to see that there are many dislocated workers that can take advantage of this,” Solis said.
Duncan and Solis also stopped by the Education Department’s first regional community college summit. About 150 educators, business leaders and policymakers from more than a dozen states gathered at the Community College of Philadelphia for a daylong discussion on degree completion and how to move adult learners into two-year colleges and the workforce.
At a brief question-and-answer session with the secretaries, educators asked about international best practices, statewide data systems for tracking student achievement and targeting resources to better retain students.
Noting that about 90 million Americans have no more than basic numeracy and literacy skills, Duncan acknowledged problems in the academic “pipeline” to community colleges, saying that he wants “to get higher ed out of the remediation business.”
Afterward, Stephen Curtis, president of the Community College of Philadelphia, said affordability is the top issue facing his students. Many students live below the poverty line and rely on federal financial aid, he said.
“Government is pulling back in many ways,” Curtis said. “There are so many competing priorities right now.”
Only about 16 percent of his students complete degrees, Curtis said, though he noted that not all students enroll with the goal of getting one; some might just need a class or two to fulfill requirements elsewhere.
He added that the college offers the type of job-school collaboration touted by Duncan and Solis. About 75 students are currently enrolled in a federal stimulus-funded program for training in either medical billing, social services or computer technology. The 10-week course is designed to get them jobs quickly, but also earns them college credit toward an associate’s degree.
The summit was the first of four follow-ups to last fall’s White House Summit on Community Colleges. Others are planned for the coming weeks in Houston, Indianapolis and San Diego.