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One of the most important developments within the modern American community college is the formation of the “shadow college.” This term originated in the early 1990s at Macomb Community College in Michigan to describe the assortment of occupational courses sprouting up at the periphery of the institution.

This phenomenon was not confined to Macomb, however. At community colleges around the country, continuing education and noncredit offerings were becoming less focused on personal-interest classes, such as floral arrangement, small engine repair and family investment strategies. The economic downturn of the early 1980s and the rapid changes made by American companies facing new international competition impelled community colleges to place more emphasis on customized training programs that responded directly to the needs of business and industry. Those programs were organized for maximum flexibility in content and scheduling in order to efficiently train workers in the skills needed by local employers, and they existed outside of traditional, credit-bearing occupational programs.

These shadow-college programs represented a significant departure from community colleges’ traditional approach to work-force development. Notably, the focus of occupational instruction moved beyond knowledge of specific technologies in isolation -- such as machining, welding and information technology -- to include an understanding of how technical skills are embedded within a particular company’s production cycle. This new emphasis on the business context for technical skills brought the work of community colleges much closer to the specific needs of local businesses and spurred the creation of new nondegree qualifications, such as certifications and business-initiated credentials.

With the growth of the shadow college, community colleges also became far more likely to fashion programs that could lead to employment for adults who either had been displaced from their jobs or were entering new occupational activities. For instance, Grand Rapids Community College is implementing an online introductory information technology class developed by Google to prepare students for entry-level IT work.

In addition, community colleges became a locus for innovative economic development initiatives, such as business incubators, advanced technology centers, maker spaces, user laboratories and entrepreneurial training. Lorain County Community College’s Innovation Fund, for example, offers initial capital for companies provided that they offer employment opportunities for students. LaGuardia Community College’s business incubator provides space and technical assistance for start-up companies in Queens, N.Y. Initiatives like these pushed community colleges into the areas of economic development and community involvement, and they diversified the ways in which those institutions contribute to the development of human capital in their region.

These various educational initiatives created a sense of awareness among both companies and policy makers of the potential role of community colleges in the development of a skilled work force in the United States. But the current structure of work-force education at community colleges, with credit and noncredit programs existing in silos, may not be fully optimized to bolster local economies while giving students -- especially working adults -- the best chance of building sustainable careers.

The comprehensive guided pathways reforms underway at many community colleges offer a distinct opportunity for institutions to rethink the relationship between their credit and noncredit work-force programs. As colleges work to clarify student pathways to credentials and careers, they can ensure they are providing students with avenues for both the immediate acquisition of skills and the completion of college credentials.

Strengthening connections between credit and noncredit work-force programs would be beneficial for students in both areas. On one hand, it would help ensure that colleges’ credit-bearing pathways are relevant to the skill needs of local employers and that they provide adults with credentials of value in the work force. On the other, it would open up more options for the many students who enter the community college intending to complete short-term programs linked to specific jobs and whose career plans change. Many colleges are developing “bridges” between noncredit courses and credit programs. They are also extending the availability of counseling and other support services to students in noncredit courses and programs to support their transition to the credit side.

In this way, the strengths of the shadow college can be used to provide focus for pathways efforts, and the strengths of traditional programs can improve the prospects of students in the shadow college. It is time to move beyond the shadow college and create one system that provides learning alternatives for all students.

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