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Cover of America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity, edited by Robert Schwartz and Rachel Lipson

Harvard Education Press

A new book released this month argues that community colleges are uniquely positioned to drive economic growth and combat stubborn socioeconomic inequities. America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity is the first book to come out of the Project on Workforce, a research effort at Harvard University focused on helping higher ed systems smooth the transition from college to career and produce better economic outcomes for students.

The book takes a close look at five community colleges: Lorain County Community College in Ohio, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, Pima Community College in Arizona and San Jacinto College in Texas. It presents detailed case studies of each institution, highlighting ways they’ve prioritized creating viable paths to careers for students in credit and noncredit programs and played critical roles in their local economies through strategic regional partnerships.

The editors of the book—Robert B. Schwartz, professor emeritus in educational policy and administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and senior adviser at the Project on Workforce, and Rachel Lipson, cofounder of the Project on Workforce and its inaugural director—and Northern Virginia Community College president Anne Kress spoke with Inside Higher Ed about the economic potential of community colleges and trends worth watching in their workforce-development efforts that surfaced in case studies outlined in the book. Excerpts from the conversation have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You refer to community colleges in the book title as “America’s hidden economic engines.” Why do you think these institutions are still hidden in plain sight or overlooked as economic drivers? The book also suggests this is a ripe moment for these institutions to step into a more publicly acknowledged role as economic powerhouses. Why do you think that is?

Kress: We see, even in the midst of layoffs, there are still companies desperately searching for a workforce, and a high-skilled workforce, a high-demand workforce … I was on a panel with the VP for global governmental relations from Intel who said two-thirds of the jobs will not require a bachelor’s degree. So, where is that workforce going to come from? It’s going to come from community colleges. I do think this is the moment.

But I would also say that community colleges, we’re workhorses. We’re not show ponies. So, you’re not going to see us out there with huge advertising budgets and marketing budgets sort of tooting our own horns. We’re going to be doing the work every single day. And I do think there’s an opportunity for every community college leader to say, “Look, I need a seat at this table. I can help you solve this problem. But we need to partner on this.”

Schwartz: You’ve seen there’s a lot of polling data that says both young people and their parents are no longer quite so sure that a four-year college is the right or only or best path … You’ve seen now 10 governors who have changed the rules around state employment to say we’re removing B.A. requirements for up to 90 percent of our jobs … There’s still a lot of buzz talk around hiring for skills. I don’t think anybody’s really figured out exactly what that looks like. But the point is this is a moment when community colleges, for all these reasons, are now moving much more to the front and center of the conversation.

Lipson: We’ve talked about the tight labor market. And the unemployment rate is not really budging … And if you look at what’s happening with the U.S. demographically, the population is aging … Everyone’s been talking for years about the reskilling revolution … Paired with the fact that immigration levels have stalled or declined since the pandemic, we have this demographic challenge, which is, how are we going to find the people to fill these jobs? And to me, it’s very clear that community colleges are much more at the center of that, to be honest, than four-year schools. If you tell someone that they need to retrain, the idea that they’re going to go back and drop out of the labor market for four years potentially or try to, at night, take four years of credits is a hard leap.

Q: What were some of the more innovative approaches to workforce development you saw at the five community colleges profiled in the book?

Schwartz: I’ll give you one example from Pima. When Lee Lambert became [chancellor] a decade ago, Pima, like a lot of community colleges, had a pretty sharp divide between its degree programs and its noncredit workforce programs. The workforce division had to pay for itself. No institutional resources went into it. It was continuing education and workforce development and a relatively small team. What that incentivized was building short-term relationships with employers … Lee said, “Hey, wait a minute. If workforce is absolutely central to our mission, we’ve got to put resources behind it.” He said, “We’re going to fund workforce. I’m going to hire a senior VP for workforce whose responsibilities cut across the whole institution. He’s got to build a team of people who are employer-facing, and he’s going to work closely with our deans and do a lot of internal work as well—a single point of contact for employers in this multicampus institution.”

Kress: One of the things we’ve noticed post-pandemic, not just at NOVA, but across all of the Virginia community colleges, is that we’ve seen a double-digit enrollment growth in FastForward credentials. These are the short-term certificates, four months or less … The students in these FastForward courses are also older—their average age is around 30. So, time is important because it’s an opportunity cost for them.

But then I think, from the institutional perspective, there is more of a trend of then taking that noncredit [coursework] and turning it into college credit, so that it’s not a door that’s closed going forward, but it opens another door. At NOVA, for example, when a student completes FastForward in IT, they can earn nine, 12 credit hours in our cybersecurity program and cloud computing and IT. And then a student can continue to move forward, get an associate degree, or stack up with another credential, then move on for a bachelor’s degree.

For more than a decade, we’ve talked about stackable credentials, but I think now, what you’re seeing is that those are real. And what they’re really driving is individual and personal economic opportunity for a very diverse group of students but then also connecting those to what are the local labor market demands.

Q: How do you measure the success or economic impact of a community college on its surrounding community?

Lipson: Certainly, I think there’s a strong case for rethinking some of the ways we’ve just taken the four-year success metrics and then planted them in community colleges, because that actually, in some ways, disincentivizes a lot of the innovative behavior we’ve been talking about. If you want people to truly be able to move in between employment and education, the idea that the graduation rate is your only metric that you’re orienting towards does not take into account the fact that someone might have only needed a few more courses to move up in their job. And that should be a success rate, because now they have gotten a promotion and they’re making more money on the job. But realistically, that’s often viewed as a failure in public policy.

I do feel like there’s a lot of interesting work that can be done on measuring the economic impact of a community college in their community. What’s their impact on local business formation? What’s their impact on rates of entrepreneurship, on growth of the companies that work with them?

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