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Brice W. Harris: Colleges should get credit for professionals who build skills

Fire Academy students train to put out a structure fire during a live fire training for Fresno City College in July 2015.
Fire Academy students train to put out a structure fire during a live fire training for Fresno City College in July 2015. Fresno Bee file

Imagine you’re a professional eager to stay competitive in today’s job market and you go to your local community college to take one or two classes to maintain your “A” game. You work hard and pass with flying colors.

Your reward is not a certificate or degree, but sharpened work skills that earn you more money. If you’re lucky, those units of career technical education help you land that big promotion.

Sounds like a success story, right?

Not so fast. Federal and state success measures have traditionally not counted that achievement. That’s right – because you didn’t earn a certificate, degree or transfer to a college or university within a set number of years, you’re not considered what we in higher education call a “completer.”

We in the California Community Colleges have long been frustrated knowing that we did not have a way to measure the success of students who come to us and take just a class or two to add skills, then re-enter the labor force. Compounding this frustration is that these students’ experiences are counted against our overall completion and transfer rates.

Thursday, the chancellor’s office will announce a system that measures the return on investment that these students – and the state – receive as a result of taking courses in career technical fields.

Over the past three years, our researchers have developed a metric for identifying these students and their earnings. In 2012-13, about 86,000 students qualified as a “skills builder” – someone who finishes one or two intermediate or advanced career technical education classes. The median wage gain for these students was nearly 14 percent, or $4,300 a year.

Just in 2012-13, that translated into $500 million in wages for these students and the California economy. That is an outstanding return on an investment by the state and by students for a couple of classes that cost $46 per unit.

We are working hard to help students who want to earn a certificate or degree, or who want to transfer, as well as those who just want to take a couple of classes to improve their competitiveness in the workplace. Our Student Success Initiative is transforming all 113 colleges and helping students succeed.

A big part of the initiative is increased transparency with online tools such as our Student Success Scorecard, which provides the public with easy-to-read performance outcomes for all our colleges. This year, we are adding the skills-builder metric to this accountability tool.

Improving completion and transfer rates is vitally important to our students and our state. It is equally critical to include nontraditional measures of success for students who are building better lives for themselves and their families.

Brice W. Harris is chancellor of California Community Colleges. He can be contacted at bharris@cccco.edu.