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Strategizing around economic mobility and the workforce

Photo by Higgins Spooner on Unsplash

A group of community colleges share tips on economic mobility and industry partnerships. Also, AWS opens a second campus and ups its investment in cloud training, and a two-year college in Colorado cuts 30 programs to better align its credentials to the labor market.


Workforce-Forward Community Colleges

As the Biden administration and state governments roll out targeted new funding for workforce education projects, some community colleges are sharing intel to try to maximize the impact of those grants.

The Community College Workforce Consortium is a group of leaders from 35 “workforce-forward” community colleges who talk about strategies and experiments to provide economic mobility for more students, says Scott Ralls, the consortium’s co-chair and the president of North Carolina’s Wake Tech Community College.

The group was founded as a grassroots coalition of community colleges that received Obama-era career-training grants. The $1.9B program was the largest-ever direct federal investment in community colleges, with 630 getting grants. It was designed to create capacity for education and training for in-demand jobs, including by building stronger ties with local industries.

The grants generally got good reviews, with largely positive results for working learners. Less clear, however, was whether they created lasting collaboration with employers.

Workforce-aligned education often is expensive to offer, says Mordecai Brownlee, president of the Community College of Aurora, which is located in Colorado. Industry partners can help provide equipment and even instructors. But sustainability can be a challenge with one-off grant funding. 

“By the time you’ve started up and the public is then aware, the money has now concluded, and then what are the institution and the workforce partners left with?” Brownlee said in an interview for a forthcoming podcast episode from JFF. “Legislatively, we need to have hard conversations around workforce development.”

Systemic Change: The Community College Workforce Consortium has grown in numbers and geographic reach. Its members are at the forefront of changing how community colleges deliver training to students, says Jennifer Freeman, a senior director at JFF, which helps to coordinate the group.

“Students and employers are seeking faster pathways to the workforce,” she says, “and we are among the community colleges that are innovating rapidly to meet these new expectations.”

For example, many of the consortium’s member colleges have developed apprenticeship programs, with some working to embed apprenticeships and earn-and-learn opportunities into credential tracks. Growing those offerings is a challenge, says Freeman, in part because of the intensive work it takes to find and develop employer partners. Likewise, applying student aid is tricky for embedded apprenticeships.

“To scale these efforts really will require state and federal policy changes to financial aid, course approval processes, and accreditation,” Freeman says. “Scaling isn’t dependent on the community college sector alone but will require a systemic approach that involves higher education systems and industry.”

She says partnerships with employers, four-year universities, and K-12 programs can help community colleges deliver more of the high-cost credential programs that pay off in the labor market, including in healthcare, IT, and advanced manufacturing. Some two-year colleges are sharing equipment and instructors across education systems, with support from industry.

These are complicated arrangements, however, with agreements needed on liability issues, maintenance responsibility, and cost before the training can become a reality.

“Community colleges alone cannot possibly afford to buy, maintain, and continually upgrade equipment to keep pace with industry change,” Freeman says.


Work Shift: Cutting ‘credentials to nowhere’ A community college in greater Denver joins the small but growing ranks of institutions that aren’t just adding—but also cutting—programs to better match labor market demand.

Pipeline to Tech Jobs in N.C.

Wake Tech and the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University this week signed a tech-education partnership.

As part of the agreement, NC A&T, which is the nation’s largest HBCU, will be able to access classrooms and offices at the Lilly Science and Technology Center at the community college’s RTP Campus. That location is built to serve up to 7K students and includes Wake’s early-college program in IT and biotechnology for K-12 students.

Ralls says the partnership creates a direct path to degrees in computer programming, cybersecurity, network management, and biotechnology, from high school to community college to university, all within the same location. That site is within three miles of locations for IBM, Cisco, Eli Lilly, and Lenovo, among other employers, as well as a coming Apple campus

Wake Tech also has co-located and tech-focused degree partnerships with East Carolina University and Elizabeth City State University.

The agreements don’t help the college with funding goals—it provides the space for free. Instead they are part of Wake Tech’s overall approach to workforce development, its Ladder Works initiative. That strategy prioritizes stackability by recognizing that completion of an initial academic credential or workforce training program may not be enough for students to achieve economic mobility and their longer-term career goals. 

“Our goal with ‘laddering’ is to not only provide a breadth of workforce-relevant programs connected to our labor market, but also to create the connectivity that allows for students to keep moving up,” Ralls says.

Wake’s university and K-12 partners also help strengthen its connections to corporations. Ralls says employers “appreciate the seamless connections, or ladders, that include nondegree workforce training, high school, community college applied degrees, and university degree pathways.”


Work Shift: Amazon ups its cloud training investments AWS just launched a new skills center near D.C. and is expanding both its in-person and online training programs for cloud careers.

University and Community College

Dual-mission institutions feature similar advantages to the new alliance between North Carolina’s largest community college and its biggest HBCU. These universities, which will gather at a summit next month, typically include a mix of liberal arts programs and skills-focused training. They offer a blend of certificates and associate and bachelor’s degrees in their undergraduate programming.

Many also are the only game in town, with locations where students lack access to other postsecondary providers and where alignment with the local workforce is a necessity.

North Dakota’s Dickinson State University has strong ties to manufacturing companies and other employers located in the small city. Those relationships have helped the university adjust its program offerings to meet hiring demands.

“We compete with private industry for technical instructors, so our salaries have to be within range of what can be earned in those jobs,” says Steve Easton, Dickinson State’s president. “Support from industry and others often helps dual-mission institutions provide the equipment, supplies, and instruction needed to make career and technical programs successful.”

Likewise, Colorado Mountain College has used financial support from foundations, Johnson & Johnson, Google, and other partners to create three new nursing simulation labs at its campuses in rural mountain resort towns. 

Another dual-mission institution, Utah Valley University, has been successful in recruiting and retaining instructors in high-demand fields. That’s partially due to its location in the booming Silicon Slopes, says Astrid Tuminez, the university’s president. But she also notes that UVU can offer faculty the benefits of tenure, research support, and, potentially, higher pay.

Tuminez says the dual-mission approach allows for the creation of stackable degree programs while inspiring confidence in higher education among underserved populations and nontraditional students.

The Kicker: “Many enroll intending to earn a one-year certificate and end up with associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees,” she says. “The model puts education within reach of many who would never have the opportunity.”

Open Tabs

Community Colleges

The federal Institute of Education Sciences has tapped the Community College Research Center to lead a network of research teams that will study how two-year colleges are recovering from the pandemic. The initial $3M grant will support research projects in California and Virginia, with a focus on enhanced financial aid, innovative workforce programs, improved online education, and new course formats.

Enrollment Crisis

Enrollments at Virginia’s colleges held relatively steady this fall compared to last year, according to preliminary data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Enrollment at the state’s community colleges was basically flat after declining 8.4% since 2019. Virginia’s two historically Black universities were up after earlier declines, and Liberty University grew by 4%, to 99K students.

Online Education

Demand for online or hybrid courses is surging across California’s community colleges, with students increasingly seeking flexibility as they juggle work, childcare, and family responsibilities, Debbie Truong reports for the Los Angeles Times. For example, 50% of courses across the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District are being offered online this fall, while 7% are hybrid and the remaining 43% are in person.

College ROI

An accountability proposal from Louisiana’s Board of Higher Education signals to high schools that the state values high-quality career and technical training and education, write Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, and Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community & Technical College System. The plan would incentivize dual-enrollment courses and work-based learning experiences.

“We can make that promise of higher education as a middle-class pathway a possibility again by raising the floor on higher education and making sure our taxpayer dollars are going to programs that have demonstrated that they will lead to value for students,” Clare McCann, a higher education fellow at Arnold Ventures, said while calling for value-based accountability for all levels of higher education in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

College Affordability

More than three-quarters of U.S. adults (77%) say a college degree would be difficult for someone like them to afford, according to the results of a national survey by Morning Consult. That take was more common among women (82%) and Black (80%) and Hispanic (78%) respondents. However, a majority said community colleges (65%) and vocational training or professional certification programs (57%) were affordable.

Employer Partnerships

Pima Community College uses a handbook to help standardize its work with industry advisory committees, Shalin Jyotishi, a senior analyst for New America, writes in a piece on how colleges can improve employer partnerships. “A standardized process for industry engagement ensures that employers’ voices remain central to our program design,” says Ian Roark, Pima’s vice chancellor of workforce development and innovation

Education Benefits

PNC Bank has partnered with Guild Education to offer fully-funded college tuition programs and career services to 62K U.S. employees. The 400+ eligible education programs range from certificates to master’s degrees and include high-priority areas for the bank, such as data science and cybersecurity. PNC also expanded its career development program for K-12 students and will offer it in Cleveland and Birmingham, Ala.

Are other colleges doing anything like the academic audit conducted by the Community College of Aurora? If so, please send me details. —@paulfain

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