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Four Areas of Focus from Community Colleges at the Crossroads  

On March 30, the Center for Advancing Learning held its second Policy and Practice Summit Roundtable webinar: “Community Colleges at the Crossroads: Examining Challenges and How to Put Institutions on a Sustainable Path Forward.” If you couldn’t attend, we’ve outlined four areas of focus from the conversation.

Dr. Karen Stout, President and CEO of Achieving the Dream, Inc., David Baime, Senior Vice President for Government Relations and Policy Analysis at AACC, Dr. Jon Bauer, President of East Central College (Missouri), and Dr. Mary Alice McCarthy, Director, Center on Education and Labor at New America all joined the conversation as panelists with Anthology’s Dr. Tara Zirkel, Director of Community College Enrollment & Retention.

Dr. Stout opened the webinar by positing a few key questions that are impacting community colleges locally and nationally, including:

  • How do we make community colleges more relevant?
  • How do we demonstrate our community colleges’ value?
  • How do we make our institutions more equitable for more students and, as a result, support our communities in becoming more prosperous?

Dr. Stout focused on how equitable opportunities, especially for potential students who’ve previously been marginalized and disconnected from higher education, can help to answer some of these key issues. Additionally, improving the high school-to-college pathway, reaching into under-represented communities, rethinking the structure of courses and semesters to encourage adaptability to student lives, and wisely integrating technology were all important areas of focus. Bridging the transition from education to the workforce as well as lowering the barriers for adult learners to return to the classroom were also critical.

“We need to better connect with adult learners, many of whom will be part of the 17 million workers who may need transition to new jobs post-pandemic, according to a recent McKinsey report. We need to ensure we’re designing programs, particularly in terms of short-term certifications and AAS degrees, that lead to good career pathways and a return on investment for students and communities.”

1. Equity Gaps

The acknowledgement of “equity gaps” existing throughout the sector, institutional, and program level was also an integral discussion point. Success metrics have been achieved in uneven and disproportionate ways, further marginalizing some of the most important community college demographics. Credentials that don’t move the needle for students shouldn’t be considered successes, so identifying core means through which a broader community college learner population can achieve truly meaningful goals via their educational experience is vital.

2. Results-Based Outcomes and Critical Resources for Success

Dr. McCarthy specified that an important aspect of relevance, especially for community colleges, is often centered around access and life betterment, including examples such as obtaining a quality job with leave, decent pay, and a certain level of flexibility. McCarthy drew on the disproportionate impact of the pandemic to illustrate how career opportunities that include these characteristics allow individuals to better ride-out uncertainty, buoying themselves, their families, and the communities they are a part of. Also critical to their success is providing community colleges with the resources needed to develop wrap-around services and align programs to community needs.  

“Resources for colleges to develop services and programs to help students to complete their programs and move into good quality jobs are as important as they’ve ever been. There are a number of investments that are being discussed in Washington that were in the president’s Build Back Better plan, that were in his FY2023 budget, that are right on target. Investments like in career pathway programs, making sure that community colleges have the ability to stand up programs that are well aligned with their local labor market, also a major investment in sectoral training partnerships.”

3. Program-Specific ROI, Access Whenever, However and Pathways

Dr. Bauer added that declining enrollment across the sector isn’t the issue, it’s a symptom of the larger systemic problem of relevancy. Added-value programs, both for learners and employers, are core to the need for community colleges.  Access is a key element and Dr. Bauer believed, to stay relevant, community colleges must be able to deliver programs in a flexible manner.

“Part of being relevant is being able to provide students access whenever and however. Part of that is making sure we’re equipped to deliver remotely in a really quality way. Because if we’re not doing that, someone else will and we’ll be irrelevant. There’s nothing magic about the 16-week semester, the traditional mode of delivering higher ed, but we have to do that in a quality way if we’re going to be relevant to the students we serve.”

Coupled with flexibility, Dr. Bauer outlined clear pathways from high school to a well-paying job as another factor to strengthen relevancy.

“When you’re thinking about pathways, they need to be broadly defined. Pathways without barriers, clear pathways. Pathways, from high school to our institutions. We’ve done a lot with our Early College Academy. Not just providing academic opportunities, we’ve done things like free tuition for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch to try and remove barriers to access even at very low tuition, which we know are real. And on the other hand, it’s pathways into a career. An individual really has to see that pathway coming to our doors without barriers on the front end, but then being employed in a quality, rewarding career down the road.”

4. Policies, Pathways and Funding

Policies and procedural opportunities, including updates to the Pell Grant program, can also help stimulate pathways and open doors for new populations to utilize community colleges, according to David Baime. Baime also pointed to the need for additional funding as the element community colleges most need toward providing innovative partnerships and job training.

“The Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program was a huge success for community colleges. Some of what was good with TAACCCT was the innovations it created, the partnerships, the close interaction with industry. A lot of those elements were things community colleges were already doing or wanted to do if they had the funding. TAACCT did provide substantial funds. The truth for our institutions, is that without additional funds, for workforce training and partnerships – because it is so expensive to do workforce training – they just aren’t going to be able to meet the needs of our economy.”

“If you talk to college presidents, a major inhibiting factor in providing the kind of training that will get people into jobs is simply an absence of funds. It’s not the only thing that will get it done, but in many cases, it’s a necessary precondition.”

Want to dive deeper into the discussion? We hope you’ll watch the full webinar recording and save the date for the Center for Advancing Learning’s next installment of the Policy & Practice Summit focusing on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This webinar will take place on Tuesday, April 19 from 2:00-3:00pm EST. We encourage you to register for the event in advance

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