By Judy Savage and Aaron R. Fichtner
Read this op-ed as it originally appeared Sept. 6, 20202 on njspotlight.org.
Earlier this month, the leaders of New Jersey’s 18 county community colleges and 21 county vocational-technical school districts came together (where else, but on Zoom?) to focus on how we can collaborate to expand high-quality educational opportunities to better prepare students for success in high-demand careers.
Our career-focused county institutions have always shared a commitment to meeting labor market and employer needs with certificate and degree programs that prepare our state’s diverse student population for well-paying careers, especially in the high-demand technical fields.
And, while many of our schools and colleges have been working together for years, rapid social, economic and technological change — magnified by the upheaval of the pandemic — create a new imperative for collaboration. Now more than ever, having affordable education pathways that respond to the needs of students and employers is vital to ensuring New Jersey’s economic recovery.
Four priority recommendations
Our two statewide organizations issued a white paper that makes four priority recommendations to guide our schools and colleges in this effort.
First, community colleges — with the support of county vocational-technical schools, four-year institutions and key employers — will launch Pathway and Skills Collaboratives in healthcare, advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics and technology to map and align education and training programs with the needs of the labor market. This critical work focused on key industries will guide students in following the right educational pathway, and it will support regional Work and Learn Consortia designed to align vocational and college programs, credentials and jobs in each county.
Our organizations will work together to identify fair and viable dual-credit models between the county institutions that enable more students to begin earning college credits during high school.
Thousands of New Jersey high school students already participate in dual-credit programs at their community colleges and some even earn enough credits for an associate’s degree. This year, 161 vocational students in Atlantic, Bergen, Cumberland, Gloucester, Hudson, Morris, Salem and Somerset counties simultaneously earned a college degree along with their high school diplomas.
An early taste of college
These students received a huge head start on college and their career, and saved thousands of dollars on college tuition. The chance to try out college early is a great antidote to senior slump, and expanding these early on-ramps to college will boost student success, increase affordability and swiftly move graduates into the workforce.
Our members also pledge to seek partnerships for shared facilities and services, such as shops and labs, collaborative equipment purchases leveraging federal career and technical education funds, shared faculty and staff and joint use of classrooms and support facilities such as fitness centers.
The Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act, approved by voters in 2018, is an immediate opportunity for counties to plan with their vocational-technical school and college leaders to leverage state dollars and create shared facilities that will expand access to career and technical education programs aligned with regional economic demand.
Finally, we are establishing a subcommittee of community college presidents and vocational-school superintendents to provide leadership to their respective organizations regarding collaboration.
Boosting minority representation
The subcommittee will focus on promising strategies for making high-quality educational opportunities and career pathways to employment available to all New Jerseyans, with particular emphasis on well-paying industries in which minority residents are under-represented.
Creating quality, career-focused education programs that develop fundamental competencies such as critical thinking, problem-solving and communication while leading to industry-valued credentials and degrees is a core strategy for addressing historic economic and social inequities that imperil the future of our state and too many of our residents.
New Jersey is unique in having our 39 career and technical schools and colleges organized at the county level. By working together, we can address the urgent challenges of restarting the economy, closing critical skills gaps, and expanding education and career opportunities to all New Jerseyans seeking a better future.
Judy Savage is the executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools. Aaron R. Fichtner is the president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.