Originally published by the Accelerating Recovery in Community Colleges (ARCC) Network
Unemployment in the American economy spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ranks of the unemployed swelled to 20 million in mid-2020. While that number fell to 5.7 million by December 2022, the labor market is still in flux, and jobs in some fields go unfilled. The pandemic also exacerbated long-standing racial/ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic inequities. From February to June 2020, for example, Black and Latino workers were more likely than White workers to lose their jobs and to report difficulty paying bills.
In response to these trends, higher education systems and states across the country are turning to community colleges to provide both long- and short-term workforce training programs in high-demand fields. Short-term programs are garnering significant attention, in part because federal officials are weighing expanding financial aid benefits for short-term credentials for low-income students. And to various degrees, state policies have funded community colleges to increase their investments to help unemployed Americans—particularly residents of hard-hit Black and Latino communities—participate in education and training to get good jobs.
The Virginia Community College System (VCCS), which comprises 23 colleges and serves more than 210,000 degree-/diploma-seeking students and an additional 27,000 people in workforce training and community education programs, has emerged as a national leader in innovative workforce training. In particular, VCCS has developed programs for helping adults access training and earn credentials that improve their labor market prospects and provide on-ramps to further education. Two of those programs are FastForward and Get a Skill, Get a Job, Get Ahead (G3). Legislated by the Commonwealth, both initiatives seek to meet the need for skilled workers to fill the available and emerging jobs in high-demand fields, such as healthcare, information technology, and skilled trades (construction and manufacturing). They also leverage financial incentives to increase enrollment and strengthen existing workforce programs. FastForward offers colleges a pay-for-performance model for funding noncredit workforce training that leads to a credential in a high-demand field. In this model, costs are shared among the state, students, and the training institution, and the specific amounts of funding are based on student performance. G3 is a last-dollar scholarship program that covers tuition, fees, and books for individual students. To receive G3 funding, a student must (1) be eligible for Virginia in-state tuition; (2) have a total household income less than or equal to 400 percent of the federal poverty level (roughly $100,000 for a family of four); (3) be enrolled or accepted for enrollment at a Virginia public community college in an approved program; (4) be enrolled in a minimum of six credit hours per semester; and (5) apply for federal and state financial aid programs for which they may be eligible.
Recognizing the national significance of these efforts, the Institute of Education Sciences recently funded two research partnerships to document and examine early outcomes of FastForward and G3. Both research projects, the Noncredit Career and Technical Education (CTE) Study at the Virginia Community College System and Virginia Workforce Recovery: A Research Partnership to Strengthen G3, are exploratory and aim to strengthen VCCS’s efforts to better support the state’s economy and inform the broader field on important questions of quality and equity in the implementation of workforce programs. Together, the research projects will provide nuanced and detailed information about the associations between postsecondary student aid and student education and workforce outcomes and how community colleges can build pathways to high-opportunity jobs and careers. Through its focus on program factors influencing student success, the VCCS Noncredit CTE study will raise important considerations about the pay-for-performance model underlying FastForward. The Virginia Workforce Recovery project will assess the impact of the G3 last-dollar scholarship on student participation and enrollment, credit accumulation, and persistence in G3-eligible programs. Using qualitative methods, the projects will examine colleges’ varying approaches to designing and delivering workforce training, as well as student and staff experiences in these programs. The findings will provide the field with valuable information about the types of instruction, support, and services that benefit students and communities hit hard by the pandemic.
The Virginia Workforce Recovery project is supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305X220024 to Teachers College, Columbia
The Noncredit CTE Study at VCCS is part of MDRC’s Center for Effective Career and Technical Education. This project is supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A220224 to the University of California, Irvine.
Maria S. Cormier is a senior research associate and Ariel Deutsch is a project assistant at the Community College Research Center. Betsy L. Tessler is a senior associate at MDRC.