The White House recently announced the second round of funding for the $2 billion, uninspiringly-named Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program. I was involved in drafting the first application and confess that it was not written in anything resembling plain English. So I forgive those who read the first application and don’t want to read the second. But I encourage you to take the plunge. This second $500 million round is a much more focused and reform-oriented—and could make a real difference for students at community colleges.
Sadly, it looks like Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, was one of those who did not read the second application. If he had, he may not have devised a plan (revealed yesterday) to eliminate this program in his 2013 budget proposal. This is unfortunate given that the program is a bright spot in an increasingly-bleak higher education landscape—one that has tremendous potential to change community college practices to help students quickly get the skills and credentials they (and the nation) desperately need.
One of the biggest roadblocks for students in higher education is the rampant “if it wasn’t done at our college, it doesn’t count” mentality. TAACCCT takes this head on, by encouraging colleges to award credit for prior learning: not only learning from other institutions but learning done outside of the classroom.
Anyone who has tried to transfer credits between schools knows the nightmare this can be. Students are often forced to retake classes, spending time and money on courses and credits they’ve already sat through and paid for, which can delay or even derail their degree. As Complete College America keeps reminding us, time is the enemy of completion. The lack of transferability adds to the enemy’s arsenal. The second round of TAACCT requires institutions that are part of a funded consortium to accept each other’s grant-funded courses. Consortia are a huge part of this grant’s design. In the last round, 23 consortia representing nearly 300 institutions in 50 states received $420 million of the $500 million. Imagine how much students in these institutions could benefit from having their credits counted, rather than thrown out.
TAACCCT goes a step further by requiring colleges to assess and provide credit for what students have learned outside of the classroom. Today, institutions assume all students come as blank slates, as opposed to students knowing and needing different things. Compare two hypothetical students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. The first is an 18-year old with no work experience whose interest in the criminal justice system comes from watching Law and Order reruns. The second is a 31-year old high school graduate who has worked at a law firm for 13 years and needs a bachelor’s degree for promotion. Under the second round of TAACCT, this second student’s knowledge and skills will be acknowledged with credit. Institutions will be required to use “Prior Learning Assessments” (PLA) to assess and award credit for college-level learning that happens outside of a classroom. The benefits to students who earn credits through PLA are clear—they are more likely to persist and complete college than those who don’t—and they finish more quickly. Despite this evidence, PLA has remained a highly underutilized tool in the college completion toolkit. Encouragement, in the form of a $500 million round of funding, might help change that.
The federal government is placing a huge bet on community colleges. And it should. Community colleges enroll nearly 45% of our nation’s undergraduates—but too few of these students are graduating. TAACCCT could be a game-changer by giving students at nearly a quarter of the nation’s community colleges credit for what they have learned inside and outside of the classroom. I have to believe that Ryan doesn’t know this. Or perhaps he’s just expressing distaste for a terribly-named, rather than a critically-important, program. If Ryan feels compelled to do something to TAACCCT, I suggest that he change the name, rather than kill this innovative program.