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.
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.
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.