Dear friends and colleagues,
As the pandemic changes the landscape of local economies, many workers will turn to community colleges to gain new skills or get credentialed in an entirely new field. Community colleges have always acted as a launchpad to a better life; before the pandemic, students at community colleges made up about 40 percent of the nation’s undergraduates, totaling 8.2 million across some 1,400 institutions.
Community colleges are integral to local economies because they sit at the intersection of workforce development and higher education. And recent evidence shows them emerging as engines for workforce growth. What’s more, the forced shift to online learning because of COVID-19 has inspired innovation at these institutions, making their impact and leadership potential even stronger in an ongoing recovery.
This was one of the major insights from a recent conversation I had with two experts in workforce development: Amanda Briggs, an Urban Institute researcher focused on postsecondary learning and workforce growth, and Monique Baptiste (PDF), head of workforce philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase and a key figure in directing the organization’s global investments in education and workforce training to promote economic opportunity and reduce labor market inequities.
In explaining the connection between higher learning and inclusive recovery, Baptiste and Briggs drew a map that placed community colleges right at the center.
“Community colleges are the nexus point where economic development initiatives and workforce development initiatives intersect,” Briggs said. “Recovery in local economies will, in many ways, be driven by how well local leaders can align with their community colleges. These institutions are the engine that will dictate the speed at which the economic recovery is going to move.”
Community colleges are uniquely positioned to drive local inclusive economic recovery
City and regional leaders are learning to lean on community colleges to build a responsive and locally tailored labor market.
“Community colleges can be nimble, bridge into communities—particularly vulnerable communities—and connect people to employers in a way that aligns short-term credentialing with employer demand. That makes them an extremely attractive partner in any real effort to reach large segments of the workforce,” Baptiste said.
Community colleges and local leaders can help each other by aligning resources, developing skill pathways, and building on this ready resource for ushering millions of new and newly trained workers into the labor market.
Briggs and Baptiste pointed to several college systems leveraging their expertise, reach, and partnerships to meet the new demands of this moment:
- In Florida, Broward College’s Unlimited Potential (Broward UP) program is expanding access to its college courses. Broward UP provides free education and training at satellite sites in six zip codes with disproportionately high unemployment rates, low educational attainment, and low household incomes. The program also offers students wraparound services, such as case management and broadband access, by leveraging a network of community, government, and industry partners.
- In Indiana, Ivy Tech Community College’s Achieve Your Degree Program partners with local employers to help employees further their education. Ivy Tech supports students at employer worksites, offering help with financial aid applications and academic advising. Through a partnership with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, employers with tuition reimbursement programs get a 5 percent rebate for participating.
Digital innovation at community colleges in the face of COVID-19
Another interesting bright spot, Baptiste told me, is that being forced to switch to virtual learning strengthened community colleges’ digital capacities, making them even more responsive to the emerging economy—and better able to help students navigate toward new workforce opportunities. AlamoOnline, part of the Alamo Colleges District, had already taken significant steps before the pandemic to allow adult learners to attend virtual classes in one of the five Alamo colleges. The college offered more than 100 online degree programs and other courses, allowing students to earn credentials remotely.
When the pandemic struck, community colleges had to shift programs and services online, which meant providing support for student learning in a virtual environment and helping instructors translate instructional delivery while maintaining course quality. In the case of AlamoOnline, the district extended its already discounted online tuition rates to encourage out-of-state students to take more online classes. They also added enrollment coaches, a virtual welcome center, and drop-in advising for digital enrollees.
And though the initial shift to virtual learning may have been an emergency measure, the ideas and possibilities that came with the move are beginning to take root. Many community colleges plan to keep using online learning and technology-enhanced instruction after the pandemic.
The shift to virtual learning also elevated the need for localities to consider strategies to increase digital equity. With support from funding allocated under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, several community college systems have stepped up efforts to increase access to broadband and devices, as well as digital skill-building supports.
Diablo Valley College, for example, allowed students to apply for a $1,000 COVID-19 Emergency Grant to cover costs associated with transitioning to remote classes and services. In addition, the college promoted its other services for online students, including critical information about the college’s technology loan program and dedicated staff members ready to help students access the loan and equipment.
How city leaders can support and partner with community colleges
As more labor markets prioritize digital literacy and skills, what’s happening in these and other community college systems is encouraging. Leaders at these institutions are seizing the moment to serve their student populations more effectively by designing programs informed by disruption in traditional career ladders. City leaders can leverage funding streams to support the work of community colleges as they forge new partnerships with local and regional employers to promote inclusive economic recovery. As more workers move into jobs that better match their needs and new capacities, we’ll see the impact these strengthened partnerships can make.