Learning from Community Colleges: 5 key ways to improve post- secondary education in Latin America and the Caribbean

Learning from Community Colleges: 5 key ways to improve post- secondary education in Latin America and the Caribbean

Elena Arias Ortiz 18 diciembre 2013 Comments

In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) a very high percentage of students does not reach the basic level of knowledge and skills in mathematics they should master for their age (the 8 countries that participated in PISA 2012 are among the 14 worst performing ones). Labor market outcomes for young people do not look promising either. According to estimates of the International Labour Organization (ILO), in 2005, 57 of the 106 million young people in the region were unemployed, employed in inadequate jobs, not in school, or not interested in looking for work. Could some features of the U.S. Community College (CC) system help LAC countries face these challenges?

“Today, community colleges are the largest and fastest-growing segment of higher education in America. These schools enroll 43 percent of all college students, and are increasingly recognized for their critical role in preparing the American workforce of the future. ”

Jill Biden, the opening of the Summit of the White House Community Colleges in 2010.

In order to attempt to address this question, major US Community College players, came together with policymakers and business representatives from LAC during the event, entitled “Community Colleges : A good model for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC)?” The event, held on November 6 and 7, 2013, was organized by the IDB Education Division with support from the United States Department of Education. The exchange of experiences allowed participants to identify five key aspects of Community Colleges that, adapted to LAC’s context, could improve the coverage and relevance of post-secondary education, and facilitate the transition from school to work for young people in our region.

Community Colleges 1

Photo taken during the event

1) Expanding access and integrating students with a broad range of skills

Community Colleges are able to play a social role and serve a community of disadvantaged students thanks to the varied composition of their funding (mix between public and private), and allows them to include groups that are traditionally marginalized from the education system. In addition, they devote significant resources to the compensation for inequalities in terms of abilities or preparation for college. For example, the Accelerated Learning Program developed by the Community College of Baltimore County allows low-performing students to take introductory classes for credit while simultaneously receiving tutoring to address their academic weaknesses. Institutions in the region do not invest significant resources in tools that allow students to adjust their skills in that way.

2) Ensuring transferability

Community Colleges ensure the compatibility of tertiary certificates and the transfer of academic credits with universities, thus offering students different paths adapted to their goals and capabilities. The numerous partnerships that exist between different types of institutions in the U.S. education system ensure the certification of credentials and foster the continuity of formal learning. In LAC countries, higher education in general tends to be seen as an end in itself and equivalences are often scarce.

3) Improving the quality of secondary education

The IDB book Disconnected shows that a majority of young people in Latin America leaves school unprepared to succeed in traditional universities and without the necessary skills to succeed in the labor market. The participating Community Colleges, including Montgomery College, maintain channels of communication with secondary education institutions in terms of the general knowledge that they should reinforce. Preventing that students graduate with a low levels of learning and skills by maintaining an open dialogue with schools, strenghtens the central role that Community Colleges play in the continuous process students follow from high school, to college, and then to the world of work.

4) Strategic alliances with the private sector and the community.

The ability to coordinate the complex collaboration with the productive sector was identified as a common denominator of quality Community Colleges. A solid teamwork between the education institution and the private sector is a key factor for the viability and sustainability of the Community Colleges model. Both LaGuardia and Houston Community College recommended creating local partnerships and inviting representatives of the community and the business sector to join the advisory board of the institution to identify needs and objectives that need to be achieved.

The presentation of Sergio Urzua, Professor at University of Maryland, showed that in LAC access to education has not translated into improvements in labor force productivity, largely because of a lack of matching between the content of the programs with the actual needs of the labor market. It is crucial to develop a regulatory framework (quality, certification, and curricular norms and flexibility) that encourages a fluid, efficient, and strategic communication between the education and the employment sectors. Our region must build trust and promote strategic alliances focused on a model of competencies to be acquired instead of content to be covered.

5) Cultural change and reputation

In the U.S., non-university certificates are valued higher in the workplace because of a greater transparency and credibility of the system. In LAC countries, technical studies continue to be seen as a ” plan B ” or “consolation prize ” for students who cannot access the university level. To expand post-secondary educational opportunities, we must improve the reputation of higher technical studies and foster a cultural change that elevates the view of technical graduates. To introduce this change gradually, workshop participants suggested that the same education institutions that provide college degrees should also be the ones to offer technical certifications. They also proposed to review labor regulations and compensation schemes for graduates of both types of institutions and to explore the possibility of transferring to university from a non-university institutions.

The objective of studying the Community College model is not to teach lessons or reproduce every detail of the system. Our aim is to learn from successful experiences in other parts of the world and trigger the necessary reforms that will provide greater access to quality education and enable young Latin Americans to obtain high quality jobs. Which of these five key aspects of U.S. Community Colleges can be applied to LAC? What contribution can the Community College model make in your country?

Don’t miss our next blog post on a visit to Montogomery College!

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