After months of record-breaking and spirit-crushing unemployment, the US has officially entered a recession. But while endless articles have been published on the dire consequences for four-year schools and “traditional” students, not enough attention has been paid to community colleges and their largely older student populations.  It’s time to acknowledge the increased role that community colleges will play in educating students and helping displaced workers find new routes to employment.

Before the pandemic, community colleges already enrolled close to half of all undergraduates.  And since enrollment tends to be countercyclical to the economy, during the Great Recession (2007-2011), enrollments increased by 18%. Of course, as the economy rebounded, students, mainly older adults who had lost their jobs, went back to work.  However, community colleges found they now appealed to a new population:  so-called “traditional” college students seeking lower-cost routes to a bachelor’s degree.

The Covid-19 era presents another set of variables and challenges for community colleges.  This time around, community colleges will likely see a surge of enrollments, perhaps by as much as 20%, as learners re-evaluate their education options.  Rather than pay for remote learning at a four-year school while living at home, students may want to earn a few general ed credits at a local community college — online or on campus — before transferring to a four-year college next year. Unemployed or transitioning adult learners may want to enroll in short-term certificate programs to find decent-paying jobs as quickly as possible.

Many of these students will be facing extreme financial and academic challenges.  Community colleges already enroll a high proportion of low-income students and students of color, who are trying to learn in the midst of extremely challenging circumstances. . The Hope Center found that “Nearly one in two community college students experienced food or housing insecurity in the past year and about 17% experienced homelessness.” In the midst of the new recession, these challenges will surely grow worse. More than any other sector in higher ed, community colleges can address inequality and create economic opportunity but also have a huge role to play in addressing day-to-day basic needs of their students.  For example, when community colleges had to close because of the pandemic, many students lost access to food pantries they depended on for survival.

Community Colleges Face Unique Problems

Public funding of community colleges has never matched the support provided to 4-year colleges and universities — or even K-12, for that matter.  In fact, as a recent report from the Century Foundation put it, community colleges have been systematically shortchanged.  As a result, at a time when they — and their students — need more, there is a serious question as to whether they can meet the challenge.

Community colleges are particularly challenged by the Covid-forced move to remote learning since many had a limited online presence before the pandemic. Many low-income students lacked home computers and even those who had them lacked internet access, some even forced to log on in college parking lots.  Though community college faculty and staff made an all-out effort to adapt to remote learning in March, most do not have experience in designing and delivering the higher-quality online learning experiences necessary to retain and engage students in the next phase. Colleges have struggled to support students enrolled in programs that require hands-on training with equipment or vehicles and in labs, shops, hospitals, and clinics. Clinical placements during the pandemic have disappeared and online simulations only go so far in replicating experience.

Framework for Integrating Workforce and Academic Programs

But community colleges have one advantage that too many four-year schools lack:  workforce divisions that build and customize programs to meet needs of local employers. These divisions also offer non-credit certificates and credentials in areas such as manufacturing, logistics, construction trades, truck driving, HVAC, information technology and front-line healthcare.

But there is a problem: workforce divisions are usually (but not always) small; rather than being funded by the college, they are generally seen as revenue generators.  Programs do not generally carry the credits that will help students transition to the next degree or credential. This workforce function (where “training” happens) is firewalled off from academics (where the “real learning” takes place).

We at Volta Learning Group believe that workforce and academics need to be better integrated and viewed as equal parts of the same effort:  to create meaningful pathways with many entry and exit points to smooth the educational journey.  This will require a strategic planning process that sets priorities and makes tough decisions about the viability and need for programs and services.  This process will likely involve the following:

  • Labor market analysis to align workforce and academic programs to the needs of the local and regional economy
  • Plan for strengthening community college partnerships with regional employers and create pipelines to employment
  • Competency-based learning models that remove seat time as a variable, have flexible entry/exit and allow students to progress based on what they know and can do
  • Industry-valued professional and technical certifications, badges, and micro-credentials in short programs as part of a sequence to create stackability leading to a larger credential.
  • Non-credit to credit pathways that are accepted within the college and for transfer credit at regional institutions
  • Career and academic counseling services to help students plan career and academic pathways, financial planning, and targeted supports such as small loans to cover the emergencies
  • Credit and non-credit programs built on essential human competencies as well as technical and professional allowing students to clearly articulate their skills and competencies

How the Change Happens

Even before the Covid-19 recession, many community college leaders were planning for the increasingly automated future of work and the disruption of many occupations and industries. That future has arrived ahead of schedule and now is not the time to go back to business as usual. In these turbulent times for all higher ed, all institutions are evaluating programs and services in light of decreasing public funding and uncertain revenues. An agile strategic planning and curriculum process should incorporate elements of the framework described above with a view to the future and a focus on equality.

The U.S. needs new policies to drive the development of a more coherent workforce and education “system” that helps community colleges take on their lead role in the recovery. Public funding must increase, and follow-on measures to the CARES Act should prioritize community colleges, which received a disproportionate share of the aid. Private philanthropy rarely aids community colleges but could play an important supporting role. Pell Grant policies should be more generous to part-time students and support short-term credentials.

We have met outstanding community college leaders, including workforce directors, who have helped us understand this vision for a reimagined community college strategy. These leaders are tuned into the needs of their communities and work with business and policy leaders at a high level to demonstrate the value of their offerings to employers and the regional economy.

It’s time to turn the spotlight on our nation’s community colleges and help them become the stars of the U.S. economic recovery.