For over a decade, community colleges have been expanding their agenda for institutional excellence and effective leadership from a singular focus on access to a broader goal that includes completion and career opportunities. Community colleges have also adapted their open door policy into a pathway-to-completion model. Today the next phase of the community college agenda is upon us: the post-completion agenda.
The work of the completion agenda continues: improving the on-boarding processes; the redesign of developmental education; the development and articulation of clearly defined pathways for student completion; and other independent and collaborative actions of individual colleges, state systems, and the community college movement.
But just as completion broadened the access mission, the post-completion agenda further extends the focus on outcomes built on student success analytics, labor market data, and regional economic assessment. Joshua Wyner, Senior Vice President of the Aspen Institute and author of What Excellent Community Colleges Do, termed this next generation of community college work “Community College 3.0” in his 2016 Dallas Herring Lecture.
What happens to students in the community college is important. It is an experience built upon the curriculum as a platform for student and institutional success, and is driven by a labor market that is changing at a lightening pace. For colleges to thrive, community college leaders must become adept at creating and articulating a strategic vision in the midst of rapid technology-driven innovation and disruptive change.
Anthony Carnevale and his colleagues at the Center on Education and the Workforce (Georgetown University) have found through their research that completion isn’t only student completion of a degree or credential. Programs and curricula also matter. Economic returns on degrees and credentials are relative in the labor market. Community college educators and employers concerned with workforce issues have recognized and acted on this.
For example, the movement toward nationally-recognized, third-party certified credentials linked to community college curricula recognizes this phenomenon. The value placed on IT certifications in the labor market often exceeds the value place on the specific academic degree. Over the past decade, the Manufacturing Institute has led an effort to embed the recognized credentials of such organizations as the American Welding Society and the National Institute of Metalworking Standards into community college programs. In 2016, the National Center for Biotechnology Workforce published core skill standards for bioscience technicians based with employer needs.
Employer-driven skill standards and certification can help community colleges align curricula with employer needs, but they are subject to the same challenge as the curricula: the unrelenting pace of change.
Real-time labor market data research helps and is increasingly available with firms such as Burning Glass and EMSI. This data supports the work of colleges by mining job postings for communities and employment regions. Such data is helpful in defining current needs for programs and skill development, and community colleges are often the agile leader in responding to employer needs.
To build the platform for success, community college leaders must have a strategic vision of what today may be over the horizon. The jobs of tomorrow are being created today at the intersection of existing technologies and sciences in a way that current job analyses may not fully reflect.
Job creation is happening at the intersection of manufacturing and IT with the Internet of Things, robotics, and 3-D printing and at the intersection of clinical health and IT with bioinformatics, telemedicine and electronic medical records. It is also coming at the intersection of all three with tissue engineering, bio-printing, and regenerative medicine. These are just of the few of the potential job creating intersections that will shape the knowledge and skill demands of the future.
While the curriculum is the market-driven platform upon which the student experience is built, the labor market outcome is the ultimate student goal. This outcome may be built directly on the community college credential or associate degree or on a bachelor’s degree or beyond after successful transfer.
Carnevale and Hansen point out that short term economic success in the labor market results from technical education programs, at least initially. They find that while five percent of jobs are STEM occupations, 40 percent of all jobs value STEM competencies.
The long-term labor market value of transfer associate degrees can only be determined following the completion of the bachelor’s degree. Just as other dropouts from higher education fail to achieve the value of the degree, associate of arts graduates who do not complete the bachelor’s degree after transfer have dropped out or stopped out prior to gaining value from their degree.
The relative economic value gained from differing fields of study and academic goals requires community colleges to define and track student success beyond completion. This daunting task requires collective action, the convening of community resources and partners toward a common goal. Universities, K-12, employers, non-profits (e.g., Goodwill Industries, Urban League), Chambers of Commerce, and state and local governments have a role with the community college in expanding student success in the labor market.
Community colleges also must confront the fact, verified by research, that some programs that generate significant enrollment achieve minimal economic outcomes for students. Other indicators of value need to be considered, such as whether such a program is part of a pathway that can lead to other more positive outcomes; or if the program is part of cluster of programs that have value to an employment sector. However, if colleges value positive economic outcomes, they must make sometimes difficult decisions about investing resources in such programs, even low-cost ones.
When Jeff Immeldt, CEO of GE declares that GE, a quintessential American manufacturing company in the global economy, is a “digital company,” community college leaders should take notice. This is the economic transformation community college students face. It is a transformation that requires community college leaders to articulate a vision and proactively adapt to the technologies and disruptive change that are creating the jobs of tomorrow.
Dr. Gary M. Green is President of Forsyth Technical Community College (Winston-Salem, NC).