Reporting on the connections between education and work

Cutting ‘credentials to nowhere’

A Denver-area community college joins the small but growing ranks of institutions who aren’t just adding—but also are cutting—programs to better match labor market demand.
(Photo by William Bossen via Unsplash)

The Community College of Aurora, just outside Denver, has its eye on the job market. That’s why the college will phase out 30 degree and certificate programs in the coming months that don’t align with student and employer demand.

The majority of the program cuts will be in the arts, business, and computer and digital technology, according to Bobby Pace, vice president of academic success.

The move comes after an audit examining both enrollment and job alignment in the college’s programs. Mordecai Brownlee, the college’s president, said the goal of the program cuts is to better connect students to the job market. Higher education, he said, has been slow to ensure students get the most value from their education.

“What do we need to do to be relevant in this space as educators to truly create opportunities for social and economic mobility?” Brownlee said.

The big idea: Nationally, community colleges have faced declining enrollment for more than a decade, along with more pressure to ensure their programs lead to jobs—two trends the pandemic only accelerated. Entry-level jobs, from Colorado to Ohio, are offering higher starting wages than ever before, and almost every state faces worker shortages in areas like healthcare and technology.

Colleges are taking a hard look at what one college president calls “credentials to nowhere,” and responding by adding new short-term credentials and degree programs that are aligned to high-demand jobs in their regions. Some colleges, like the Ivy Tech Community College system in Indiana and now Aurora, are also starting to use workforce data to reassess and cut programs.

In Colorado, leaders are calling on colleges to focus more on providing students with the skills needed for the workforce. Earlier this year, a state task force focused on how to spend billions in federal pandemic relief funds recommended much of the money go to connecting more adults, especially those from low-income backgrounds, to job training opportunities in the highest-demand job fields

Brownlee said the debate about how to educate students so they land guaranteed jobs is especially significant for a college that serves one of the most diverse populations in the state. About 67% of Aurora’s students are people of color and half are the first in their families to go to college, he said.

Those students typically don’t make it to college at the same rate as their peers, and ensuring they get a good return on investment when they do enroll is critical.

Cutting to grow

The Community College of Aurora (Courtesy of CCA)

The college will start phasing out the 30 low-demand programs as current students finish their degrees. Many of the individual courses, Pace said, will then be incorporated into other programs or offered as standalone electives.

For instance, Pace said that industry leaders made it clear that they no longer need graduates with certificates in Cisco systems, but pieces of that coursework could still be valuable in an information technology degree.

The college has also reached out to former students who never finished their degree in those programs, to give them an opportunity to complete it or direct them to another program.

“It really gives us an opportunity to re-engage with those students,” Pace said.

Narrowing options

Some faculty are concerned, however, that the cuts will diminish students’ options to find a career that’s the right fit.

David Chatfield, who has taught art and art history at the college, said he worries the cuts to arts degree programs could deemphasize the importance of art, even if classes still exist. He also worries that fewer programs in the arts will make it harder for students to connect to a subject they’re passionate about.

He’s also concerned that the full job potential of art degrees isn’t being factored into the cuts.

Chatfield said the arts play an important role and contribute more than $13 billion to the Colorado economy. Cutting the programs gives fewer Aurora students an opportunity to realize a job in the arts, he said.

“I think they’re only looking at a very superficial amount of information,” Chatfield said.

Stacey D’Angelo, chair of visual and performing arts, said the cuts may end up connecting fewer students to the arts, but she approves of creating more flexibility for students and instructors.

For example, students will be able to take a theater class and graphic design class together that expand how they apply their associate of arts degree, she said.

“We’re still going to be able to accommodate students in their goals and dreams,” D’Angelo said. “We’re just kind of naming it differently.”

Pace said changes needed to happen with the college’s art degrees. In 2020-21, only three students declared an art history major, 25 chose studio art majors, and 14 elected theater majors, he said.

“What we are working towards now is a revitalization of our arts offerings, not an elimination,” he said. “This may mean we aren’t treating them as majors in the traditional sense, but that we are emphasizing their relevance and integration into our general education.”

A new urgency

By eliminating the degrees, officials said they hope to be more responsive. The college doesn’t want students to graduate without finding jobs, which then makes the community question the college’s value. 

Brownlee hopes the changes create urgency around addressing economic mobility for students. 

“What good did we do for a former student who walked across the stage with a credential and it still doesn’t land them where they need to be,” he said. “So that’s part of that trust, that’s part of that integrity, that we’ve got to bring back into these classrooms.”

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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