Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

A promising model for helping community college students succeed

Welcome back. This week’s issue looks at One Million Degrees, a promising model for helping community college students succeed. Also, the mismatch in hiring for tech skills and the Delta variant’s impact on workforce training programs. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)


One Million Degrees

Wraparound student supports work. Providing community college students with mentoring, coaching, and career advising can go a long way toward increasing their odds of succeeding—as it is, just 40 percent of community college students earn an associate degree within six years.

But holistic support can be expensive. And to expand their ability to offer more personalized advising, some community colleges have partnered with outside groups.

A recent Brookings Institution report found a common thread among effective organizations in this space: coaches with relatively small caseloads who work closely with students to assess the challenges they face, identify appropriate goals and a plan to achieve them, and offer personalized guidance when obstacles arise.

The Chicago-based One Million Degrees was among a handful of groups identified by the researchers, who cited its statistically significant positive effects on student persistence. Community college students who participate in the program graduate at roughly twice the state average, according to the 15-year-old organization.

One Million Degrees works closely with the City Colleges of Chicago, says Paige Ponder, who has been the group’s CEO for nine years. Its staff members have caseloads of about 60 students, far fewer than the norm for student advisers and counselors in the two-year sector, which allows them to get to know students.

“They understand their aspirations. They understand their dreams. They understand their challenges,” Ponder says. “And they’re able to connect them to resources and to bob and weave with them as they navigate the whole process.”

Career service departments typically are stretched thin at institutions that serve large numbers of lower-income students, she says.

“They tend to be a couple of people for tens of thousands of students, which is absurd,” Ponder says. “Of course there’s no way that the college or university can significantly help students find jobs if there’s literally hardly anybody working there.”

So the group taps 500 volunteers who work with students to help them think through what comes after college, and to connect students to professional networks. Mentors may even take students who are considering transfer to see a four-year university campus.

“There’s this whole range of activities that would be impossible to program with an algorithm,” Ponder says. “That’s a very human connection.”

Employers around Chicago are getting more active with apprenticeships and partnering with colleges to develop pathways to jobs for more graduates.

“We are feeling and seeing employers understanding that they have one hand tied behind their backs in terms of the talent that they can access or have traditionally accessed,” says Ponder, adding that local companies increasingly are showing “more interest and willingness to engage, to partner directly with colleges, and to engage folks like us to help be the mortar between those two bricks.”

One Million Degrees is moving beyond Chicago. The group recently signed on to a project with the Colorado Department of Higher Education that seeks to connect working adults who hold some college credits but no degree to the college of their choice.

Ponder is stepping down as the group’s CEO at the end of this year. She’s optimistic that holistic student support services can work at scale. And she welcomes your thoughts, so feel free to reach out to her here

To hear an audio recording of our conversation or to read the full Q&A, click over to Work Shift.

The Kicker:

“I’ve seen systems change in K-12 here at the Chicago Public Schools. It always starts small and then becomes more normalized. And then it becomes the thing that everybody does,” Ponder says.

The ‘Good Jobs Challenge’

Federal ‘Good Jobs Challenge’ puts up $500M for training programs, with emphasis on cross-sector collaboration and wraparound supports
Federal ‘Good Jobs Challenge’ puts up $500M for training programs, with emphasis on cross-sector collaboration and wraparound supportsworkshift.opencampusmedia.org

The challenge aims to bring together local leaders, colleges, and employers to design programs that are both aligned with good jobs in regional markets and provide the support workers need to complete.

Delta and Workforce Training

The pandemic is again contributing to enrollment woes at two-year colleges. 

As administrators and faculty members scramble to deal with the Delta variant’s impact on the fall semester, uncertainty about childcare, health concerns, and financial barriers appear to be contributing to students’ decisions not to enroll, as Elin Johnson reports this week in Work Shift. And this remains particularly true for students of color.

For example, enrollment of Black and Latino students—specifically men—remains suppressed at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York. And overall enrollment at the college is down about 15 percent.

The disruption also is affecting workforce education and training programs. At Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana’s two-year system, several thousand students have enrolled in Taking Hoosiers to the Next Level, a free, short-term credential program. But the program’s growth has slowed, according to Sue Ellspermann, Ivy Tech’s president.

“Definitely Delta is dragging things down,” she told Work Shift.

Workforce development centers can be a good barometer for student demand for job training. And the signals in Washington State are mixed right now, according to Marie Bruin, director of workforce education at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

However, the rapidly shifting economy has altered labor market demands. Health care and early learning are hot fields in Washington right now, unlike the aftermath of previous recessions, when hiring in manufacturing was particularly strong.

In Indiana, however, Ellspermann said the pandemic has slowed down progress for Ivy Tech in forging links with its industry partners. And potential students may be less likely to enroll amid a hiring boom, as employers raise salaries to try to attract workers.

“It would be fair to say many of our industry partners have been preoccupied with their own COVID responses,” Ellspermann said.

Credential for a Career Pivot

Camara Wilson heard about Ivy Tech’s Taking Hoosiers to the Next Level from a local TV news spot on the new tuition-free program. Though she holds a four-year degree in film and television, Wilson had been looking to earn a credential to make a career pivot to a more stable and well-paying job.

“One of the reasons I hadn’t done it was because of that time piece of spending maybe two years, four years in school, and trying to balance it with working and personal life,” she told me during a webcast hosted this week by the Presidents Forum and JFF. “It really was something that was really appealing to me to be able to get it done quickly.”

The short-term certificate programs typically come with 18 to 21 credits and can be completed in as little as six months. Most students are working, however, and typically finish in nine months. 

Ellspermann says all the certificate tracks are designed to be in high-demand fields.

“We looked very much at what industry needed,” she says, noting that accounting, advanced manufacturing, and health care are well represented among the 25 disciplines covered by the program, which is funded by the state’s Workforce Ready Grant and covers tuition up front—the so-called last-dollar approach. 

Wilson went with bookkeeping, citing the potential payoff for those jobs. She enrolled in the certificate program last October and completed it in May. Wilson praised the support she got from Ivy Tech, particularly guidance from Chevelle Russell, a career coach. She landed a bookkeeping job at an investment management firm in July.

(Read more about workforce initiatives amid Delta over at Work Shift.)

Tech Skills Mismatch

Demand in the labor market for technology-related skills has grown well beyond the tech industry, with a wide range of companies now seeking workers who can read and analyze data, among other tech skills, according to a new analysis from Emsi Burning Glass and Whiteboard Advisors.

The report, which was commissioned by General Assembly, the boot camp provider, focused on specialized digital skills in job postings across the tech, retail, and manufacturing industries, as well as for business roles in sales and marketing, management, human resources, and operations. It found, for example, that roughly half (49 percent) of all job postings in finance and insurance mention a digital skill. And 31 percent of postings in sales mention one.

Yet definitions of digital skills tend to be squishy. And job descriptions often are not specific about skills, the analysis said, in part because postings aren’t synced up with actual employer needs. As a result, hiring managers often look for a laundry list of skills that might be needed on the job.

This approach can exclude candidates who don’t meet every hiring requirement. And research shows that this is particularly problematic for job seekers who are women, Black, or Latino—all groups that are underrepresented in jobs requiring tech skills.

The report’s authors conclude that hiring searches for specific digital skills shouldn’t overshadow the broader need for nondigital “human” skills. And they argue that companies are overlooking talented candidates who could succeed with a small amount of training.

The Kicker:

“As hybrid jobs become ever more ubiquitous in a range of industries, employers will need to shift their hiring paradigms—to focus on hiring effective communicators and collaborators and training them in digital skills, rather than the other way around,” the report said.

More from Work Shift

Opinion: services are a social justice issue for colleges
Opinion: Services are a social justice issue for colleges
As higher education works to enroll more first-generation, underrepresented minority, and Pell-eligible students, economic mobility has become a critical social justice issue for institutions, write Mark Smith, former dean for career services at Wash U., and Matt Small, president and CEO of Symplicity.


In search of employment, many four-year graduates say they have to leave the country’s “Borderplex” region

Open Tabs

Equity and Majors

Black Americans are overrepresented in college majors that lead to low-paying jobs. And Black workers with in-demand skills and credentials are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and less well compensated than their white peers, Michael Collins, vice president at JFF, wrote in Bloomberg. “Black educational attainment, long characterized as the ‘great equalizer,’ does not and cannot set Black Americans on equal economic footing.”

Noncredit Pathways

The new Noncredit and Credit Alignment Lab is a two-year, $1.2 million project to support efforts by 10 community colleges to develop new or improved pathways between noncredit and credit programs. The Association of Community College Trustees and Education Strategy Group are leading the initiative, which is funded by the ECMC Foundation.

Remote Work

“Remote postings made up about 10 percent of job listings in May, but attracted almost a quarter of all applications. And the rate of increase in remote postings is trending higher as of May for jobs that don’t require college degrees than those that do,” wrote Rachel Lipson, director of the Project on Workforce at Harvard University. Lipson’s essay for The Boston Globe called for the application of a national lens to workforce training.

Community Colleges

New America’s Center on Education and Labor is looking for six community colleges that excel at nondegree workforce development programs. The six selected colleges will receive $50,000 grants and national visibility while being able to contribute to research to advance student success and career advancement, New America said. The grants are part of the group’s New Models for Career Preparation project.

Just one-quarter of California community college students who pursue career education earn a credential within six years, according to a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California. Among students who first earn a certificate, about 25 percent go on to earn a second, stackable credential in the field. Black and Latino students are less likely to complete a career education credential program, as are younger students and men.

Notable Hire

The Institute for College Access & Success has selected Sameer Gadkaree as its next president and CEO. A senior program officer at the Joyce Foundation, the Chicago-based Gadkaree previously was associate vice chancellor of adult education for City Colleges of Chicago. TICAS, which has been focused on policy in California and at the federal level, recently expanded its focus to Michigan.

What should I be covering? Let me know. Thanks. —PF @paulfain

You May Also Like

Free college for workers

Amazon last week joined Walmart and Target in offering free college as a benefit to its 750,000 front-line employees in the U.S. Like its fellow retail giants, Amazon views college benefits as a crucial hiring and retention tool.

Charting better maps to degrees

Community-college students on average rack up 82 credits when earning an associate degree—22 more than they should need. A guided pathways approach seeks to create a structured path.