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ATE Regional Centers:
CCRC Final Report
Vanessa Smith Morest
Community College Research Center
Teachers College, Columbia University
Table of Contents
Background and Study Design
Regional Center Goals and Activities
The Regional Centers and Workforce Development
The Regional Centers and Community College Reform
ATE and the Regional Center Concept
The CCRC Study of the Regional Centers
Reform and Workforce Development
The Centers, Their Regions, and Workforce Needs
Academic Program Reform
Sustainability and Institutionalization
Factors Influencing Sustainability
The purpose of this research study was to determine the role of regional centers in the Advanced Technical Education (ATE) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Conducted by the Community College Research Center (CCRC), the researchers began by asking whether the concept of a regional center was unique and useful to NSF’s goals of increasing both the number and the quality of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers. We asked questions about the following: (a) the quantity and quality of the students, (b) the changes in structure and organization of the participating community colleges, (c) the capacity of the “system” of technical education, and (d) the conceptualization of sustainability within the regional centers. In the end, the report presented here documents the unique role of the regional center as well as suggests areas to pursue.
The regional centers differ from other ATE programs in their focus on manufacturing or information technology, their focus on a “logically defined region,” and their challenge to meet ATE’s goals through academic program reform. Our research indicates that the regional focus on the centers is an important one, and that it plays out differently at each center because the regions differ in size, heterogeneity of labor markets, and economy.
Our study’s sample comprised eight sites that were initially funded as regional centers between 2001 and 2003. Between February 2004 and March 2005, a team of CCRC researchers conducted field visits at each center for the first phase of the project. Research for the second phase was conducted between December 2005 and August 2006. During this period a team of CCRC researchers conducted a total of 65 telephone interviews with faculty affiliated with the partnering community colleges, business contacts working with each center, and the principal investigators themselves.
Regional Center Goals and Activities
Our site visits and follow-up interviews with participants at eight sample centers indicate that the ATE regional center is a valid concept for meeting a particular need for institutional innovation and change within a given geographical area. Despite differences in the parameters of “region,” virtually all the centers had a defined concept of place and the institutions to be served. It was different from the mission of the ATE national centers or individual project. In addition, as opposed to emphasizing new curriculum materials and national staff development seminars and/or technical support services, as do the national centers, the regional centers appeared to concentrate their staff development and introduction of new programs within their self-defined area. In that way, they were far more focused on specific institutional change than their national counterparts. That is not to say that a few centers that we studied did not have a national impact, rather that they we able to have a greater local impact than most national centers. Frequently staffs were integrated into the institutions where they were housed, yet many of the centers were independent enough to play a local/regional role in economic and workforce development
In our conception of the workforce expansion and program development foci of the academic program reform, we saw differences in the impacts by quantity and quality of students. The workforce expansion focus undoubtedly has the widest impact, by providing training to large numbers of faculty who in turn could teach courses and content to students that would otherwise not have been available. Feedback from faculty involved in the program development approach suggests that this structure had a less widespread impact, but that those students who were reached were impacted in significant ways: they were able to attain an associate degree and a well-paying job with future opportunities. Our conception of these two approaches represent two extremes, and in fact most centers were engaged in each activity to some extent. Nevertheless, this issue of breadth and depth compels our suggestion that NSF should encourage the deliberate and simultaneous pursuit of workforce expansion and program development by the ATE regional centers. It is only in doing both that the centers can have the kind of widespread substantive impact on the technical workforce that the program hopes to achieve.
The role that the ATE regional centers play in building and maintaining strong connections to industry is critical for meeting the centers’ goal of workforce development. Without these connections, they would be unable to respond to local industry’s needs or create job opportunities for their students. Thus, we highlight the role of industry on the regional center advisory boards and propose that the centers are acting as workforce intermediaries.
While the ATE regional centers emerged to meet the specific needs of the ATE program leadership for a new organizational form to undertake the mission of the program, they resemble workforce intermediaries in form and mission by serving as brokers between employers and community colleges. As such, they can benefit from existing research on workforce intermediaries by using it to inform the development of the concept to support the sustainability of such organizations.
A number of the centers we studied displayed multiple relationships with local industry. It must be noted that such relationships were cultivated and developed through extensive efforts on the part of the principal investigators (PIs) and some advisory board members. Thus, centers should be aware of the attention they need to pay to developing such relationships. In addition, we saw a range of activities that centers need their industry partners to engage in. First, they need partners who are willing to be active participants in their center’s advisory boards by providing substantial input on the direction of their industry, their hiring needs and forecasts, skill requirements, and curriculum development. There should also be a group of advisory board members and others who provide substantive assistance by offering internships at their businesses for students, enabling faculty to visit in order to better understand the skills their students need upon graduation, and hiring the center’s graduates. Therefore, advisory board should be made up of a mixture of employers (including for-profit companies, not-for-profit organizations and government groups – large and small, local, national and international). The unifying characteristic should be a presence in the region and, thus, influence on the region.
While we saw excellent examples of such partnerships, it would be appropriate to make this approach to industry explicit.
ATE Regional Centers 2 Finally, we identified a series of factors that contribute to sustainability, another key area of our research, investigating whether NSF’s notion of sustainability needs to be reconsidered. We asked, for example, whether the goal of a regional center should be sustainability, especially if its priorities change, and if the labor market or the population of students on which it focuses changes. Further, if sustainability is to continue to be a priority for the centers and for NSF, then a more explicit emphasis should be placed on developing plans for it from the onset so that the center can adjust to changes.
We now situate the ATE regional centers within the larger context of reform in the American educational system and workforce development. In doing so, we propose areas for further study and new ways to understand the unique role of these centers.
One of the major reasons for the development of the regional centers was to support the goal of the community colleges to respond to their local economic development base. In some cases, such as the Center for Nanofabrication Manufacturing Education (CNME) and the Kentucky Information Technology Center (KIT), the projects utilized state grant funds to create the center.
In other instances, such as Boston area Advanced Technological Education Connections (BATEC), the approach was more local: how would this regional center develop the specific information technology skills needed in Boston and its surrounding area. While in the past this motivation may have resulted in the development of short-term, often non-credit “training programs,” more recently the tendency has been to offer for-credit programs leading to a degree and, many times, toward a four-year degree. Further, part of these programs combined foundation mathematics and science skills with the specific technical skills of the industry.
An important concern for the future development of ATE regional centers is whether they will provide a new opportunity for NSF to serve as a federal complement to regional, state, and local economic development and workforce development efforts. The centers could strengthen the ATE program in many ways. First, a center’s partnership with state workforce agencies would bring more local credibility to the ATE efforts and, probably, aid in bringing more private sector and other partner educational institutions into their initiatives. It would make the regional center connect with the local labor markets in a more systematic way. Second, a relationship to the local workforce or economic development agencies might result in some additional resources from these entities for the regional center. Such a relationship would contribute to a center’s becoming more embedded in the local labor market and increase the likelihood that real career pathways would be successfully established by the regional centers for students in these programs.
The partnership would also have significant benefits for state and local workforce development agencies. First, the participation of an ATE regional center would help create a much needed corrective to the agencies’ short-term “work first” mentality which often takes precedent in its activities. Such a mentality results in an agency’s securing for clients dead-end low-paying jobs but failing to increase clients’ skill sets or job-related credentials, thereby leaving clients in poverty. The NSF emphasis on STEM and the creative linking of foundation skills to long-term ATE Regional Centers 3 occupational growth would aid in the development of long-term sustainable training programs;
they would not only promote individuals’ continued attendance in college but could lead to sustainable careers. Second, the NSF emphasis on increasing the number of minorities and women in technologies work would reinforce the efforts of workforce development agencies to ensure universal economic opportunity. Third, the credibility of ATE program involvement with this constituency would be extremely beneficial for obtaining employer interest in hiring individuals from these programs.
There are some important factors to consider in the pursuit of these partnerships. First, many of the workforce development and economic development agencies emphasize short-term training and tend to respond to the immediate concerns of the local political establishment. Since community colleges are really products of the state, they perhaps would be more responsive to the demands of local agencies than to NSF, and there is a danger that regional and national centers might move away from their main mission to become appendages to the local workforce efforts. Second, the programmatic resources of the local agencies could overwhelm the ATE centers and make it difficult for them to achieve their mission of innovation. Therefore, the initiatives need to be undertaken with some caution and should focus on emerging and new technology within the information technology and manufacturing sectors. Third, the emphasis of the workforce agency on the workplace and the need to meet employer demands might shift the focus of local activities away from the ATE concern with student success and program innovation, making it difficult for the NSF programs to meet their objectives.
These factors pose significant challenges for the regional centers. However, through careful planning and development, projects developed by a regional center could be easily disseminated and supported through statewide contacts throughout the state. Therefore, in future grant application instructions, the NSF leadership of ATE might want to encourage partnerships with existing state and local workforce development initiatives, and perhaps launch some pilot sites.
At a minimum, there needs to be more appreciation by the state workforce agencies of the significance of the ATE programs to their own work, and steps could be taken to begin that process with organizations such as the National Governors Association and the National Association of Workforce Development Boards.
The Regional Centers and Community College Reform
The second area of potential linkage for ATE regional centers is with the newly emerging community college reform activities which private foundations are sponsoring. These activities share with ATE the goal of internal community college reform to promote greater student success. While NSF’s goal was to increase the number of STEM technicians for the workforce, the ATE projects – and the regional centers in particular – were faced with a number of specific challenges related to the way that the colleges function internally. Over the years, through rich experiences, the foundation-supported initiatives are increasing general reform efforts within the institution.