- JPMorgan Chase announced Monday that it is giving $350 million over five years to community colleges and career training programs.
- It extends the investment firm's five-year, $250 million initiative launched in 2013, with funds allocated to develop and pilot educational training programs, reinforce existing education and training systems that bridge higher ed and the workforce, and generate labor market data and research.
- The initiative, New Skills at Work, is two-pronged: improve economic mobility for underserved groups and identify abilities needed among its own employees and ways for them to upskill.
Eyes are on community colleges to provide the training panacea for the current skills gap as well as affordable ways for people to refresh or add to their skill sets throughout their lives.
But the institutions charged with providing these solutions are largely underfunded, according to a recent policy paper from The Aspen Institute's Economic Strategy Group. Its authors recommend a performance-based federal funding program that they say could add 3.6 million 18-to 24-year-olds with college degrees and upskill another 28 million workers by 2030.
The cost is steep, however: $22 billion per year. Still, the researchers say that's what's needed to close the per-student funding gap between community colleges ($11,400) and public four-year institutions ($14,900).
The Aspen proposal focuses on "improving pre-existing public institutions at scale" rather than rolling out "new, untested public programs," while JPMorgan's pledge appears to contain a mix of investments in new and existing programs. Meanwhile, other private-sector players are developing curriculum for community colleges around the needs of their own workforce. One example is an IT support professional certificate from Google on offer at more than two-dozen community colleges through the online learning platform Coursera.
Workforce training has also emerged as a federal priority, with the White House proposing Pell Grant eligibility for short-term programs in both its budget released last week and Higher Education Act reauthorization priorities issued on Monday. The administration also hopes to expand the Federal Work-Study Program to include "workforce and career-oriented training," per its budget. However, some critics say those goals are at odds with the cuts the budget proposes.
Initiatives to infuse capital into community colleges will need to do more than support programming. A recent survey of more than 50,000 community college students across 10 institutions found that many barriers to their success originate outside of class, such as the need for students to work and cover other expenses, the demands of family and friends, and finding parking on campus.
Free college programs, in particular, have caught flak for not covering expenses beyond tuition — such as transportation, rent, food and textbooks — that can make attending college cost-prohibitive. The Century Foundation in a recent report suggested such programs include funding beyond tuition waivers to for additional support services such as academic advisors, financial aid counselors and mentors.