The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated concerns over teacher labor shortages. In extreme instances, states have even called in the National Guard to staff classrooms or fill other roles in schools. While teacher shortages are a nationwide issue, they are of particular concern in Michigan, where enrollment in teacher preparation programs has dropped by 70 percent over the past eight years.
In a recent survey conducted by the Michigan Education Association of 2,600 educators across the state, more than 90 percent expressed concern over teacher and staff shortages, and more than 40 percent anticipated leaving their school within the next two to three years. Low salaries, stressful working conditions and an overemphasis on standardized testing have long contributed to teacher burnout, but the pandemic seems to have heightened teachers’ stress and discontent with the profession.
In response to teacher labor shortages, Michigan’s Department of Education recently issued a series of policy recommendations for the state Legislature. These recommendations include relaxed regulations on out-of-state teachers who apply for in-state teacher certification, student loan repayment for college graduates committed to the teaching profession and efforts to improve the teacher preparation pipeline, each of which are laudable in their own right. But the proposals overlook one important source of future teachers: community colleges. Improvements to community college transfer policies offer additional potential to alleviate teacher shortages.
Colleges and universities play a central role in providing training and credentials to future educators. By law, teachers in Michigan must have completed a bachelor’s degree as well as a state-approved teacher preparation program. An associate degree alone does not qualify Michiganders to teach, but it does place students on a path toward bachelor’s degree and teacher preparation program completion. Students who have completed a bachelor’s degree also have access to Michigan’s alternative route to teacher certification (ARC), an expedited program designed for individuals who hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and are employed as a teacher under an interim teaching certificate. ARC credentials can currently be earned at four Michigan postsecondary institutions, including one community college.
In fact, many students who complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education start at a community college. Among bachelor’s degrees in education conferred by all Michigan four-year colleges in 2018, about 50 percent were awarded to students who transferred from a community college. At public four-year colleges, this number climbs to 55 percent. More than 20 percent of master’s degrees in education awarded by Michigan colleges in recent years have gone to students who at one point enrolled at a community college.
Making the transition from two- to four-year colleges easier could reduce teacher shortages across the board but particularly among educators of color, where the shortage is especially concerning. In 2018, over 50 percent of Black bachelor’s degree recipients and over 40 percent of Black master’s degree recipients at Michigan colleges started at a community college. As shown in Figures 1 and 2, these proportions are higher than for white students, underscoring the disproportionate role that community colleges play as entry points into higher education for Black students.
Notes: Community college contribution in this case refers to any student who completed a bachelor’s degree in education at a four-year college in Michigan and ever enrolled at a public community college in Michigan.
While community colleges already make significant contributions to bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded in Michigan, addressing structural barriers in the vertical transfer pipeline could enable even larger contributions that could alleviate teacher shortages and improve diversity among teachers. Among first-time public community college students in Michigan, about 40 percent transfer to a four-year college, 20 percent complete an associate degree and 15 percent complete a bachelor’s degree, in line with national averages. A number of factors account for low transfer and degree-completion rates, from poor funding to inadequate student advising to misaligned transfer pathways between two- and four-year colleges across academic programs. Improvements on any of these fronts could help increase degree completion and boost the number of students who complete degrees in education.
Other states and institutions have started to take notice of community colleges’ contribution to teacher labor supply and implemented reforms accordingly. For instance, North Carolina recently created more intentional pathways between its two- and four-year colleges by allowing students to complete associate degrees in teacher preparation prior to transfer and identifying relevant transfer coursework through an articulation agreement. The City University of New York system has a number of conditional transfer agreements in education programs between community and four-year colleges. Faculty committees have also helped to designate certain courses as gateway courses, which can be transferred for credit across CUNY’s four-year colleges. States like Florida and Washington have passed legislation to allow community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees in teacher education to help local school districts meet staffing needs.
Developing transfer pathways in education could improve retention, transfer and degree-completion rates for aspiring teachers enrolled at community colleges. More general improvements to transfer pathways, such as articulated coursework in college-level math and English, could also help the cause by increasing students’ likelihood of bachelor’s degree completion and increasing access to the alternative route to teacher certification. As part of the Michigan Transfer Network, the Michigan Community College Association, the Michigan Association of State Universities and Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities are collaborating to improve the transfer experience through multi-institutional associate and bachelor’s degree pathways and better access to transfer information for students. Removing barriers to transfer between two- and four-year colleges cannot address all of the underlying factors contributing to teacher labor shortages, but it is one promising strategy for ensuring more quality teachers are prepared for the classroom.