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Connecting College and Community in the New Economy? An Analysis of Community College Faculty-Labor Market Linkages (MDS-1084)

D. Brewer, M. Gray

Background and Goals of the Study

America's two-year colleges play a pivotal role in providing millions of students with the education and training they need for success in the modern economy. These institutions perform a multitude of tasks, including preparing millions of young Americans for direct entry into the labor market as well as transfer to four-year colleges, retraining and upgrading the skills of older workers, and providing basic education for adults. In an era of structural economic transformation, when the job skills required for success in the labor market are changing rapidly, community colleges are called upon to play an ever more significant role in facilitating students' school-to-work transition. If they are to be successful in this labor market preparation role, there need to be close links between institution, faculty, and the labor market in terms of program offerings, content of those programs, and subsequent placement of students into jobs. This has been one of the premises (sometimes implicit) in recent changes to vocational education policy reflected in federal legislation such as the Perkins Act of 1990 (Perkins II) and the School to Work Opportunities Act of 1994, as well as other local and state reform initiatives.

For decades, some colleges have made extensive use of local business resources in program and curriculum development, and spurred by state and federal legislation have recently sought to improve these connections through school-to-work activities, including apprenticeships; co-op programs; work-based learning; and contract education, which emphasize coupling classroom work to applied experience in local business, government, or nonprofit settings. Such efforts demand that postsecondary vocational instructors have high-level, up-to-date technical skills, and are keyed in to changing labor market needs. However, despite the apparent importance of such activities, very little is known about their extent, which types of faculty members participate, and the barriers to making connections.

In this document, we report evidence from a study of community college faculty in which linkages to their local labor markets and wider communities are explored. We take as given the premise that faculty linkages are critical to the success of vocational education reform and required to integrate work experience with traditional classroom education. Our overriding goal is to understand how faculty are linked to their local labor markets and communities, how strong these links are, and what can explain these links. In particular, we are interested in what institutional policies and strategies seem to promote linkages among faculty, and what the barriers to building labor market connections are.

Methods

We pursued both a quantitative and qualitative data collection strategy. First, in fall 1995, we administered a survey to approximately thirty-five hundred community college instructors in about one hundred public institutions nationwide. This survey, with its large-scale and national coverage, gives us a unique opportunity to generalize with some confidence about the behaviors and attitudes of community college faculty. To our knowledge, this survey provides the first systematic evidence on the issue of labor market connections.

Our survey instrument was intended to collect data on faculty backgrounds and labor market links in the 1994-1995 academic year. Background items covered instructors' personal characteristics, educational background, work experience, and professional status. Other questions concerned faculty's involvement in various college reform initiatives and use of innovative teaching practices; attitudes toward their job and institution; and the nature and extent of links to their institutions, teaching field, the labor market, and community. In focusing on links, survey items covered the type and level of effort of the links, and some of the supports (e.g., professional development incentives) and barriers to constructing links. We asked about four domains of linkages: faculty pedagogical/curricula activities, career assistance, professional and community activities, and institutional activities.

The survey was administered by mail in late October 1995, and data collection continued until April 1, 1996. The overall response rate was about 64% and the final sample consists of 1,725 faculty in ninety-two institutions. A comparison of our survey respondents with data from the National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF), collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), shows that our survey sample is broadly representative of community college faculty nationwide.

Second, we conducted four institutional case studies designed to supplement the survey by describing how diverse community colleges connect to local labor markets and what factors inhibit or facilitate such linkages. Sites were selected from our survey sample, based on initial analyses of faculty responses. Institutions provided diversity in urbanicity and location, type of local labor markets, institutional size, and institutional mission. Four schools were studied in three regions of the country: southern California, a midwestern city, and the rural south. Two researchers spent two days at each institution, talking with twelve to thirty different individuals-presidents, administrators, and faculty-during the spring or fall of 1996.

In order to assess what factors were most important in explaining linkages, we analyzed our survey and case study data using various methods. For example, we used multiple regression to determine which individual (sex, race/ethnicity, age, years of experience teaching in community colleges and in the current institution, degree level, rank, tenure status, part-time status, primary teaching field) and institutional (region, urbanicity, total enrollment, governance structure) characteristics had independent effects on faculty's linking behavior. We also analyzed the faculty survey responses to two additional sets of variables which provide further clues as to variation in connecting activities: (1) perceptions of barriers to building linkages; and (2) perceptions of the institutional climate and support in providing labor market information and promoting linkages. Finally, we drew findings from our case study notes.

Findings

Our case study and survey analyses yielded six main conclusions:
  1. Faculty and administrators agree that community college linkages to local labor markets are beneficial and important. Although community college faculty are connected with local labor markets in a variety of ways, these linkages are generally ad hoc and informal in nature. Few institutions have developed systematic plans or strategies for developing and maintaining faculty linkages to local labor markets, or for using existing linkages to improve the quality of education.
  2. Linkages that are relatively easy to establish and sustain are most common; those that require relatively more effort or time from faculty are less common. Thus, a large percentage of faculty report using business examples in the classroom; far fewer offer students experiential learning opportunities in work environments.
  3. Among community college faculty, those who teach in academic disciplines perceive little need for linking with communities and invest little to no time in such activities. Part-time faculty, many of whom have strong community connections, are often unable to use these connections on behalf of the institution, largely as a result of their tenuous connection to the college. Thus, the work of forging connections rests largely with full-time vocational faculty. Unfortunately, the heavy workload borne by vocational faculty leaves them with little time for supplemental activities of any kind, and the work of linking to local markets is only one of many demands on their time.
  4. Institutional connections to community do not automatically or necessarily provide individual faculty with connections and, thus, have little impact at the classroom level in degree or certificate programs. For example, several of the institutions we studied had strong institutional connections with local communities as manifested in growing contract education programs; but the "lessons learned" in such programs had, at most, indirect effects on the curriculum and student services provided in for-credit vocational programs.
  5. Vocational faculty are motivated to link with local labor markets because such connections are required for their programs to survive, especially to place students in jobs or in required practica and internships. Nonetheless, faculty receive little encouragement from their institutions to build linkages. For example, few institutions reward or recognize faculty efforts to link with local labor markets, provide professional development to help faculty develop skills in linking, or even reimburse faculty for the direct costs they may incur in building contacts with local employers (e.g., attending conferences; travel). Moreover, faculty face many barriers to linking, ranging from a lack of information about local employers to difficulty responding in a timely manner to employers' emerging needs.
  6. The community is not a passive recipient of community college efforts to link, but, rather, plays an active role in shaping college-community relations. Linking is easiest when the local labor market is strong and stable. Employers in depressed economic areas have little motivation to link with community colleges because they have little need for new employees. Communities with large numbers of small businesses or an unstable economic base pose challenges to establishing and sustaining meaningful linkages.

Conclusions

While we find some variation in the extent of faculty connectivity across institutions, and hence by type of labor market served, geographic location, governance structure, and so on, our picture of linkages is primarily one of individual efforts by particular instructors. Although institutions may have many links to the labor market, this may not affect what happens in the classroom. Academic faculty rarely undertake connecting activities, and there are few formal incentives for vocational faculty to link. Rather, the latter are motivated by the need for enrollments and successful student placement for their programs.

It follows from this picture, that a first step in improving faculty linkages is for institutional leaders to decide if these connections are important to their institution and, if so, why they are important. Then they need to establish clear goals and develop plans to achieve these goals. That involves clarifying priorities and inevitably making sacrifices in other areas. Their would seem to be a range of possibilities for colleges to help provide incentives for faculty to build links, to remove some of the barriers to establishing connections, to reward and recognize success, and to develop mechanisms to carry institutional links down into departments and classrooms. For example, one difficulty with developing labor market linkages is that full-time faculty have high workloads. With many demands on their time, building connections is simply one of many responsibilities. In line with much previous research, we found that faculty tend to operate in isolation from the rest of their institution, and without much sense of professional identity. Overcoming these factors is a major challenge for effecting any kind of change in community colleges, not just improving links to labor markets or the broader community.

If improving linkages between community colleges and their local labor markets and communities is deemed important by policymakers, institutions need to provide more incentives that might promote such activities. Formally rewarding faculty who develop strong employer links, and greatly expanding the number and range of opportunities for faculty to utilize professional development for linking purposes, would likely have an impact. These changes, if accompanied by efforts to free up faculty time (e.g., through release time or reduced teaching loads), may boost faculty-labor market links. In the absence of new funds, these changes in resource allocation can only occur by reducing funds expended in other areas. For this to happen, administrators and faculty must be convinced of the centrality of such links in providing courses with high-level and relevant skills training for students, and of their importance for institutional mission in the new economy.


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