Let me count the ways. Inexpensive tuition. Open-door policies. Enrolling large numbers of underserved minority, low income, and first-generation college students. Workforce preparation. Workforce preparation. And workforce preparation. While community colleges operate in the perfect position to provide vocational education, there is much more that they can do. But community colleges are under intense pressure with budget constraints, students with significant economic and social stressors, and the fast pace of industry innovation and technological transformation requiring curriculum changes, among many other challenges.
Affordability and Upward Mobility
Though many factors influence who ends up enrolling in college, and even further, who will complete a degree program, the fact remains that community colleges offer the least expensive pathway to a degree, affordable to many working adults of all ages. The total yearly cost for tuition and expenses at a public 2-year institution is about one-quarter of that at private 4-year colleges and about half of what a year at a public 4-year institution costs, according to recent NCES data. In addition, many institutions have free tuition for some eligible students, making financial costs even less of an issue for some students.
The flexibility of community college is also a boon to those who can’t quit their jobs or family responsibilities to attend college. About two-thirds of community college students attend part-time. Additionally, community colleges enroll high percentages of low-income, first-generation, Black, and Latinx undergraduates, making them an indispensable educational resource for communities traditionally underserved by higher education.
The earnings gains realized by community college students are appreciable. One recent study found that those who earned an associate’s degree made between $4,640 and $7,160 more per year than those who enrolled but did not complete their degree. Another analysis found that even for those who don’t finish a degree, just attending some college gives annual salary gains of 9-13% above those of high school graduates. Certificate programs and continuing education also increase earnings, and they can be quickly responsive to industry trends. Continually breaking down these statistics and finding ways to use community college programs as an engine of upward economic mobility for underserved communities helps the students and the broader economy.
Upskilling and Reskilling
The impact of Covid on work and education will continue for many years, and community colleges are uniquely positioned to be an integral part of the “future of work.” Recommendations in a report from Opportunity America propose that community colleges can and should transition to becoming the “nation’s primary provider of job-focused education and training.” Those who lost jobs during Covid lockdowns may need new skills for the jobs that will help guarantee them a good living, and those who remain employed may need training to meet the hygiene and safety concerns of the current world.
Community colleges prepare students to continue to bachelor’s degrees at 4-year institutions, and access to academic education is a wonderful part of the mission. However, the focus for programs needs to shift more to preparing students for today’s jobs, with strengthening our workforce a priority, particularly in fields like technology and health care. In addition, mid-career adults need upskilling to continue to meet the demands of employers, so a shift in focus to making sure that the courses and certificates that are necessary for current job opportunities become an integral part of the offerings at community colleges.
Strengthening Ties Between Community Colleges and Employers
Community colleges are rooted in their areas. The area around a community college can be a rich source of jobs for graduates and collaborations on workforce development programs, keeping community colleges relevant and vibrant drivers of employability for students and job candidates for local industries.
Work-based learning, apprenticeships, and internships are meaningful skill-building experiences for students, and these require closer collaboration with local employers. These programs can also foster more daily interaction between educators and employers to influence the curriculum more directly. More intimate partnerships between institutions can give a shared sense of purpose and create symbiotic collaborations unique to each region. More alignment between federal and state programs in partnership with community colleges is needed to create a far-reaching and robust system to provide solutions to economic and workforce problems.
Pathways Forward: Evolving Community College to Meet the Needs of Students
Putting the potential of community colleges to good use is only possible if students can access the offerings and the needed supports to use the education provided. The ground is still shifting under our feet, as fallout from the pandemic impacts various potential students differently. Still, at a minimum, community colleges need to increase the support for students. Navigation assistance for choosing career paths, credit for previous learning in the classroom or workplace, and job placement services are necessary. Remedial education continues to be needed, so finding ways to fill in the knowledge gaps without requiring excessive courseloads that can burden already stressed students is important. Individual students may need mental health support, food and housing assistance, and social service supports beyond what is traditionally provided by non-residential higher education institutions. Administrators need more data on student needs to effectively implement supports that will meet the changing needs in these precarious times.
Strengthening the programs and services of community colleges can make them an even more integral and reliable part of the education/workplace ecosystem. Community colleges need appropriate financial support from all possible sources, including government and industry, plus community input to react to the unique needs of the local area. Interweaving community colleges into the fabric of economic activity across the country can help decision-makers to understand the “indispensability” of community colleges and prioritize the support necessary to leverage the perfect positioning of community colleges to aid the nation’s economic recovery from the pandemic.
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