Opportunity America, a Washington, DC think tank and policy shop, issued a report last week that reimagines the role of community colleges. The JPMorgan Chase Foundation and the Lumina Foundation sponsored the initiative, which included assembling a group of educators and policy makers across the U.S. in 2019. The group met with guest speakers to discuss the current status of community colleges and how they might adapt in line with the future changes in the workforce due to technology innovations.
The group reports that income inequality will increase as technology eliminates jobs and those with less education and less skills will be left behind. Many people, probably numbering in the millions, will need job-focused upskilling and reskilling, and our nation’s 1,100 two-year community and technical colleges are in the best position to meet these education and training challenges.
Community colleges need to accept and champion their new role as the nation’s primary provider of job-focused education and training. Community colleges should also put career preparation and mid-career upskilling at the center of their mission and culture. They should move beyond a singular focus to transfer students to four-year institutions and assume responsibility for the talent pipeline needed for a national recovery.
The group also issued a number of major recommendations:
- Programs, credentials, and strategic initiatives should be geared to regional workforce needs. Learners should leave college well prepared for high-demand, high-paying jobs.
- Learners need to be grounded in two complementary realms: foundational human skills and career-focused competencies. Foundational human skills include critical thinking, problem solving, communication, creativity, and basic research techniques. Job-focused competencies include workplace communication, applied math, teamwork, time management, data analytics, and the rudiments of coding. Online learning, hybrid courses, virtual mentoring, and other forms of remote access must be utilized on a new scale to teach these academic and technical skills.
- No learner should be stuck without recourse on either the academic or technical track that cannot link back to credit recognized for the learning achieved.
- All students should experience the world of work. Instructors need to align classroom topics with what students are doing at work. Colleges need to recognize what working students learn in conventional entry-level jobs.
- The most important metric that community colleges should be measured by is not completion but employment – high-value employment that results in upward mobility.
- Community colleges should engage with employers, daily if necessary. No detail should be considered too small for a college and an employer to consider. However, the relationship should be two-way. Employers need to provide feedback, and educators need to listen and act when receiving feedback.
- Community colleges should build better bridges for students between the credit and non-credit divisions. Both divisions stand to gain by sharing their assets.
- Every credential offered at a community college should have labor market value. Everything learned at a community college should count toward an academic certificate or degree. Credentials must be stackable, and credit earned must be irreversible.
- Students need better labor market information. They need career maps. They need data about jobs available in the region. They need advising and guidance about future careers. Mid-career adults need special attention, support, and credit for prior learning.
- State and federal policymakers should encourage colleges and workforce boards to cooperate more closely, integrating and coordinating services, ultimately joining forces to steer regional economic development. The federal government should make its Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding contingent on a state’s efforts to integrate its community colleges and its public workforce system.
- Policymakers should reconsider how they fund community colleges. Instead of support based on raw enrollment totals, funding should be based on regional economic development and programs that deliver value. Job-focused programs should be rewarded for students’ employment outcomes, such as post-graduation job placement and improved wages. Transfer-oriented programs should be reward based on a higher outcome – do the learners earn a four-year degree? Pell Grants should be available for students enrolled in short, job-focused college programs, and Congress should consider eliminating the lifetime cap that bars Pell funding for students who spend more than six years in college.
The group is betting that with appropriate planning and cooperation between community college leaders and policymakers, community colleges can spearhead the changes needed to reduce income inequality and prepare workers for a future where upskilling is frequently required to avoid layoffs due to technology. For anyone concerned with these issues, I recommend reading the full report.
Change is coming. Our nation’s two-year institutions need to be prepared for that change and need to prepare their students for it as well.