Reporting on the connections between education and work

The workforce is changing. Can community colleges change with it?

Advocates and researchers in education are asking if two-year institutions might transform to reach a fuller potential—serving as community hubs for social and economic mobility.
Photo by sirtravelalot via Shutterstock

In the early days of the pandemic, Nadine Plunkett found herself unemployed. She had previously received a bachelor’s degree in health administration from the University of Phoenix but had been laid off from her last job. No one was hiring. 

“I was very depressed, and I didn’t know what was my next move,” she said. “I have a 5-year-old daughter, so it was a bit scary at the time.”

But a friend told her about a program called Broward UP, run by Broward College, a local two-year institution in Florida. Plunkett knew she didn’t want loans, but the program was free for people in her ZIP code. She finished an online certificate program in medical billing in just four months and now works for Broward Health, the local healthcare system. 

“When they hired me, they said it’s good that I have that certificate as well because I can grow within the organization, and that is my goal,” Plunkett said. “By me doing Broward UP, it gave me that confidence that everything is going to be OK.”

The big idea: Community colleges have long occupied a distinct space in American higher education. Although they are home to many young adult students hoping to transfer to four-year universities, they are also the primary destination for older students who are returning after dropping out of college or who went straight into the workforce after high school. They serve the poorest students of any sector in higher ed and often do so with the least resources. 

Increasingly, they’re also the place students like Plunkett turn to when they find themselves at a dead end in their career and need to retool. And advocates and researchers in education are asking if these institutions might transform to reach a fuller potential—serving as community hubs for social and economic mobility.

That’s certainly the future envisioned by groups like Achieving the Dream, a leader in the student success movement. Karen Stout, president and CEO of the organization, has said that means colleges must take a more active role in bringing career-aligned education and reskilling opportunities—whether their own programs or those developed by industry—to the community.

“In the past, community colleges were lifelong-learning institutions,” Stout told Work Shift earlier this year. “Now we must become lifelong career-matching institutions—a source of upskilling, a rational pathway to career development that weaves together opportunities for students to move in and out of work and school that is designed to progressively lead to a career in a particular field.”

It’s a tall order, as the American workforce from Alabama to Wyoming is set to change drastically over the next few decades. Can community colleges rise to the occasion? Some already are. 

A changing workforce

American workers increasingly need some postsecondary education to get jobs that can support them and their families. Middle-skill jobs, those that demand some training but less than a bachelor’s degree, now require more digital literacy and technological skills than ever before. 

“In order to make a decent living in the U.S., you need some kind of postsecondary credential or postsecondary skills,” said Richard Kazis, a national expert on education and workforce development who is a fellow with organizations like the Brookings Institution and the Community College Research Center. “Does everybody need a four-year? The answer is definitely not. Depending on the pathway, there are plenty of technical two-year degrees or one-year certificates that can put you on a path.”

Even people who already have professional jobs will increasingly need to reskill to continue their careers. 

The challenge: The result is an American workforce that needs increasing amounts of training. But it’s faced with traditional higher education pathways that are not well suited to the speed of change or the lives of many working learners.

“There are large, large numbers of very low-income people who are working in very low-wage jobs who surveys indicate would be interested in participating in more education and training but are having a hard time and can’t really access the programs as they exist now,” said Jennifer Freeman, senior director of JFF. 

Time and financial constraints often play a role in that. Even among students who enroll in community college intending to transfer to a four-year college for a bachelor’s degree, life gets in the way. The average community college graduation rate within four years is 28 percent. 

What many students are now looking for, often, is subsidized, short-term programs that can lead them to a good career, not just an entry-level job with no path for advancement. 

Hubs for career and community growth

A number of community colleges have been experimenting with how to fill that demand. Six of the country’s largest community colleges and systems, for example, worked with the Education Design Lab to create new microcredential pathways in high-demand fields like healthcare and tech. The goal is not only to create faster education options for students, but also to ensure that those short-term credentials can to a degree and continued career advancement.

In North Carolina, a handful of colleges have been testing out new career-oriented outreach and education, with one even advertising the new approach as a “Career in a Year.” And entire states, like Indiana and Virginia, have been investing heavily in short-term credentials, largely through their community college systems.

Miami skyline. (Ryan Parker via Unsplash)

Leaders in the Sunshine State: A number of Florida’s largest institutions, including Miami Dade and Broward Colleges in the southeastern part of the state, have taken microcredentials and the new community hub approach particularly far. Both draw liberally from training and certifications provided by industry.

The city of Miami, for its part, has been pushing itself as the next destination for tech and venture capital, hoping pleasant weather and hefty tax benefits will attract the founders and CEOs of the future. With that has come a drive to develop local talent.

“What we try to do is create partnerships with either corporations or organizations that can align different partnerships together in order to create pilot programs that we can hope to expand into more systematic changes over time,” said Erick Gavin, executive director of Venture Miami, a city-run initiative. “We can start to build out more long-term gains in terms of the impact on the community so that Miami doesn’t replicate some of the other things we see happen in other tech hubs, where the growth of the community isn’t parallel with the growth of the tech ecosystem.”

  • Computer and mathematical jobs were only the 16th most common occupations in the metropolitan area, coming after professions in healthcare, food service, and construction, according to data from Lightcast (formerly Emsi Burning Glass), a labor market analytics firm.
  • But those tech-focused jobs were the second-highest-earning jobs in the area. 

At Miami Dade, students can enroll in short-term programs in subjects like cloud computing, network security, and microcomputer repair, which are designed to help them break into tech or advance their skills. Students take a series of courses from the college and then are encouraged to sit for outside industry certifications, like those from Amazon Web Services, Google, and IBM.

A student who takes a series of six cloud computing courses at MDC will be ready to sit for six different industry certifications, ones that many employers recognize. 

“This helps a lot for nontraditional students. During the pandemic we saw many people losing their jobs and many people considering moving to tech because tech jobs were growing,” said Antonio Delgado, vice president of innovation and technology partnerships at MDC. “This becomes a great avenue for those looking for upskilling or reskilling. They’re not looking for a degree necessarily. They just want skills and certifications.”

The certificates from the college also stack into workforce-related associate and bachelor’s degrees in technology. Since the fall of 2017, the college has seen a 120 percent increase in students enrolling in technology programs. 

The audience for these shorter-term programs varies, but students who already work in technology and are looking to upskill and those who have professional careers outside tech and are looking to make a career move are both well represented, Delgado said. 

Outcomes: It’s difficult to know whether these shorter programs are successful at getting people jobs and earnings bumps, Delgado said.

While data from the state of Florida show that 96 percent of students in MDC associate and bachelor’s degree programs in tech get jobs, it’s harder to collect data on students in certificate programs when many of them already have jobs but are looking to change course. Success may be less likely for those students who have little to no professional experience prior to the program. 

ZIP code by ZIP code

At Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, leaders have embraced the community hub approach as a way to reach people in the region’s poorest neighborhoods—places that the traditional model wasn’t serving well. Four years ago, the college began developing Broward UP, which goes into the area’s neediest ZIP codes and provides free training to residents. 

“At the time we were looking at the data. We were enjoying 2.8 percent unemployment in Broward County. So we had lots of employers coming to us saying, ‘Where can I find talent?’” said Mildred Coyne, senior vice president of workforce education and innovation at the college. “What we determined is that while we did have a 2.8 percent unemployment rate in the county, we had ZIP codes sprinkled throughout the community that had unemployment rates from 9 to 15 percent.”

  • Though 43 percent of the county has an associate degree or higher, that number dropped to 27 percent in the six high-unemployment ZIP codes the college identified.

“We know there are communities that have been left out of the opportunity that this robust economy provided,” Coyne said.

But Broward College centers weren’t in those high-unemployment ZIP codes. So the college decided to expand, meeting people where they are. They asked the Boys and Girls Club if they might work with parents after hours and built a partnership with the Urban League. The programs are free and provide training for in-demand careers.

Outcomes: Now, Broward UP has 26 locations. It has served 3,300 students, imparting 2,100 with credentials. 

The college asked Florida TaxWatch, an independent watchdog nonprofit, to do a third-party audit of the Broward UP program.

  • The report found that for a participant’s every $1 of incurred cost from forgone earnings while taking class, they are expected to receive over $19 in benefit to lifetime earnings, Coyne said.
  • For the taxpayer, every dollar gets a return on investment of about $13 in reduced public assistance and increased tax revenue. This likely underestimates the total return on investment. 

The challenges

Serving as a community hub for social and economic advancement isn’t without challenges, though. For one, creating short-term programs and others that are aligned to high-demand career paths can be tricky for community colleges. 

In fields like tech, where sought-after skills are constantly changing and new tools are being developed, it can be a challenge for colleges to ensure their curriculum is not only up-to-date, but what employers are actually looking for. 

“Colleges don’t have a lot of funding. It’s sort of a shoestring operation,” said Freeman of JFF. “They don’t have a lot of people who spend a lot of time with labor market data and understand really where the opportunities are.”

Even if everything goes right with the content of the program, there’s still the possibility that employers won’t recognize the value of the credential or won’t hire graduates. 

“What you don’t want is to create short-term programs that lead to entry-level jobs and then leave people stuck there with no way to continue on,” said Freeman. “You especially don’t want to create short-term programs where the wage levels that people earn are the same or not much higher than when they entered college to begin with.”

Employer partnerships: Some of this can be solved by partnering with specific local employers. Community colleges typically have an industry advisory board to examine curriculum, but education experts are saying that that is no longer enough. 

“The key to being a successful community college in terms of getting people better jobs is knowing where the better jobs are, working with employers, building relationships, having your curriculum aligned with what they need and being seen as a partner for economic vitality in the community,” said Kazis. 

In robust partnerships, employers may pledge to hire a certain number of graduates or give graduates priority for interviews. Miami Dade College has partnerships with Florida Power and Light and Tesla, for example. 

Getting these programs right and scaling them doesn’t just mean getting more people into good jobs with family-sustaining wages; it also has the potential to advance racial equity, changing the makeup of tech. More and more employers are turning to partnerships with community colleges not only out of a sense of corporate responsibility, but out of a desire to diversify their workforces and find new pipelines of talent. 

Colleges may need to look at whether employers are truly offering a path to advancement for graduates. 

“From a college perspective, we’re not necessarily training people to take an entry-level position because we know the value of the credentials we’re awarding,” said Coyne. “What we’re working with employers on is saying, for our Broward UP residents, if they start with you, what is the career trajectory?” 

Broward College is working with Broward Health, where Plunkett now works, to build career maps to chart out where participants can expect to be if they stay with the organization. The program also has career pathway navigators to work closely with participants to assess what they might be able to achieve with their skills and resources. 

Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Rytyho usa via Wikimedia Commons)

Understanding the labor market: Colleges will also need to look at what employers are able to pay graduates of their programs. Some careers may be in demand and socially important but not offer a living wage. Administrations may have to make difficult decisions about what best fulfills their mission in the face of labor market quandaries like those. 

“We’re seeing increased demand for nondegree programs, and we’re seeing increased supply of nondegree programs, but outcomes for these programs are mixed at best,” said Shalin Jyotishi, senior policy analyst at New America. “If the mission of the community college is to get folks into sustaining jobs, it does mean that the colleges need to sunset programs that do not accomplish that goal.”

Jyotishi has been examining best practices for short-term programs. He said most colleges have little to no infrastructure to examine earnings for different career paths. A push to acquaint community colleges with the technology and skills to dig deep into those outcomes is critically important, he said. 

Navigation and support: Also important is communicating to students what different pathways really entail, said Kazis. 

“A lot of the wraparound supports and advising supports that you would see in a degree program might not be there in the shorter-term programs,” he said. “When someone walks in the door, how do you get them into a program that fits their skills, fits their time and resource constraints, and enables them to make good choices and not just take courses because they’re available at 11 o’clock in the morning on Tuesdays?” 

Students have a number of choices to make, from taking credit or noncredit classes, pursuing transfer or workforce programs, and even picking a specific program within a discipline. Often, the labor market outcomes of those choices aren’t clear to students, Kazis said. That’s led to the growth of guided pathways for students—efforts to make it clear what different programs require and what their payoffs might be. 

Looking forward: The associate degree, the typical credential offered at community colleges, isn’t going anywhere just yet. Neither is a focus on transferring to a four-year institution, at least for those students for whom it makes sense. But colleges are likely to continue growing their training programs, becoming the hubs that workers and employers need them to be. 

“Community colleges have always had multiple missions,” Kazis said. “That’s what has defined them.”

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