A straightforward question is sometimes the best way to understand an issue – not because one might find an easy answer, but because the question opens up doors to complexity and helps with broader comprehension.
In 2007, Duane E. Leigh, an economics professor emeritus from Washington State University, and Andrew Gill, a professor of economics at California State University, Fullerton, wrote a focused book: Do Community Colleges Respond to Local Needs? Evidence from California. Recognized as a noteworthy in Industrial Relations and Labor Economics, Do Community Colleges Respond to Local Needs attempts to answer two direct and somewhat straightforward questions:
- Are community colleges meeting the education and training needs of current and recent generations of immigrants?
- Do community colleges respond to changing demand conditions by providing occupational training programs that are marketable in the local economy
The authors gathered data from California, which has a large economy, a diverse population with high numbers of immigrants, and a trove of accessible data from the state community college system. They then use fairly sophisticated quantitative analysis to answer those questions. The book walks the reader through process with care and deliberation, giving background on the state and its higher education system. The explication is clear and a model of how to think about and do large-scale research.
The answer to the first question hinges on equity. The book’s analysis underscores significant gaps in community college student outcomes by race. Latino student outcomes are not as strong as those of white students when it comes to credits earned, degrees earned, or transfer to a four-year institution. The authors find that Asian student outcomes are stronger than whites on all three measures. Bear in mind, too, that these are general outcomes for a large data set. The study breaks down other categories of students, too, and looks closely at factors such as gender, first-generation immigrants, and high school graduation or high-school equivalency.
The book also finds variation within the many California community colleges, raising important questions about individual institutional effectiveness as well as the particular nature of the region served. The authors follow their analysis by raising important and provocative questions. They are very curious as to what factors may impact the likelihood of student success. For example, the data suggests that regions with high clusters of Latino students tend to have lower transfer rates while regions with high clusters of Asian students tend to have higher transfer rates. The authors are sensitive, too, to the diversity of students within these broad categories. The study highlights the importance of pursuing an equity agenda in higher education.
To answer the question of labor market responsiveness, the authors match student credits earned (classified by program) with their alignment to California labor market data demand. Assessing demands is a challenge in itself, but the state’s reports are the best measures available. The book’s analysis is complicated by the fact that their are efforts of individual community colleges and efforts by the larger community college districts.
The authors’ research found noticeable variation among the many community colleges and their districts. Importantly, the study found that, in general, districts were more effective at meeting labor market demand than single stand-alone colleges.
Research work and analysis like this may not make headlines, but it is vitally important and helpful. Leigh and Gill have done higher education and policy makes a real service with this book. And even though it is now more than a decade old, the approach and findings have utility today and will have for the future.