Are Community Colleges Good at Workforce Training? Mott Is Spending to Find the Answer

Community colleges have become the new vocational schools. A growing number of young men and women have turned to these institutions to complete studies that would prepare them for careers in nursing and other health care professions, HVAC technology, computer support, systems administration, aircraft mechanics, welding, and other fields. 

In San Antonio, Texas, the nation's seventh-largest city, Project QUEST partners with area community colleges to meet the needs of area companies by training young people who might not otherwise be in the city's workforce.

Naturally, such programs present the question: Are they working? The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is one funder asking that question, and just put up $300,000 to find the answer.

Mott, which sees community college education as a central element of its "Pathways to Opportunity" program, just awarded a $300,000 grant to the Economic Mobility Corporation in New York to fund a random assignment evaluation of the Project QUEST's work in San Antonio.

The study will examine whether participation in Project QUEST improves employment and earnings for program participants over a control group of nonparticipants, two and four years after assignment to the participant and control groups. The study will concentrate on the implications for sector-based workforce training conducted in partnership with community colleges.

Mott has long been interested in Project QUEST and its effects on particpants' employment and earnings, and the new grant to Economic Mobility Corporation is a continuation of previous funding. The foundation supported an earlier phase of the study, providing $250,000 in grant support in 2012. A report on the outcomes is expected sometime in 2014.

A lot is riding on this research. Any number of politicians, business leaders, and nonprofit leaders tout community colleges as a key solution to America's employment problems—not just because these schools can teach skills, but because they can be part of highly targeted efforts to create the human capital that specific industries need in specific regions.

If a rigorous study throws cold water on that optimism, it could shake up the fields of both higher education and human capital.