Community colleges find creative ways to offer expensive programs in high-demand technical fields. They also face big challenges with the learning loss and mental health problems of incoming students.

The Job
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A weekly newsletter about the intersection of education and work. By Paul Fain

Big Costs and Big Payoffs

Enrollments at the nation’s community colleges began to stabilize last fall after nearly three years of historic declines. Many across the sector are hopeful that their colleges have hit the bottom and may even begin to grow as students return to the education-to-work pipeline.

Even if the worst is over, community colleges face serious challenges as they seek to recover. And coping may be costly for the most cash-strapped segment of U.S. higher education.

For example, two-year colleges are scrambling to offer credentials in high-demand, high-income fields amid the labor market’s ongoing transformation. Both students and employers want more education and training options for hot industries such as nursing and microelectronics, including short-term and accelerated options that can quickly prepare workers for a well-paying job.

Yet pivoting to offer credentials in popular technical fields can be prohibitively expensive. As Lilah Burke reports this week for Work Shift, even when community colleges move fast to design curricula, grow partnerships with employers, and recruit students, they often struggle to attract instructors and secure expensive equipment.

Hiring instructors for technical education is a fundamental challenge for Wake Technical Community College, says Scott Ralls, the North Carolina college’s president. Beyond obvious fields like cybersecurity, which had 770K job openings last fall, it’s hard for Wake Tech to find faculty for programs in collision repair, electrical work, and radiography.

“While everybody’s in favor of technical education, that’s sometimes where you see the biggest difference between rhetoric and investment,” he tells Burke, “because of the requirements that are there and what some people feel you can do without the funding.”

Some community colleges are working on creative ways to offer high-cost programs, including with partnership models, incubators, and new funding mechanisms. Burke digs into examples from four community colleges, including a new biotech incubator from Austin Community College.

The Texas college recently used $5M from the governor’s office to help build wet lab space. Emerging biotech companies lease the lab space and are asked to offer internships to students. Incubated companies have hired students, who also work to maintain equipment for the college.

“It supports the regional economy, and it supports our students,” says Michael Midgley, ACC’s vice chancellor of instruction. “They get an experience they would not otherwise be able to have.”

The COVID Cohort on Campus

The nation’s K-12 learning-loss crisis has arrived at many community colleges. Campus sources tell me that a growing number of recent high school graduates are enrolling with gaps in their academic preparation. Some colleges are seeing a surge of students being placed into developmental math and English courses.

This potential glut is occurring as community colleges across the country seek to drop the traditional approach to remedial education, often with the prodding of state governments. A strong body of research shows that corequisite education — where students with remedial needs are placed into credit-bearing gateway courses but receive additional support — is a better option for students, with big gains for equity and in the job market.

Moving to corequisite education takes effort and money. So does offering personalized support to students with remedial needs.

Even so, the learning-loss challenge only reinforces the urgency to go big with corequisite support, according to Complete College America. The last thing recent high school graduates who struggled during the pandemic need when they arrive on campus is to be placed into multiple semesters of traditional remediation, where they face long odds of ever earning a degree or transferring.

“I don’t want us to use a cop-out to go back to what we’ve done before,” says Yolanda Watson Spiva, the nonprofit group’s president.

The dev-ed reform wave will continue, predicts Monica Parrish Trent, vice president of network engagement at Achieving the Dream, who points to the recently completed move by the City University of New York to eliminate all traditional remedial courses.

“States that were on that path, I don’t think it will set them back,” says Trent, a former developmental English instructor.

Yet resources pose a serious problem, she says, noting that some community colleges have enrollment caps on corequisite courses.

Sinclair Community College has been grappling with the pandemic’s impact on the academic preparation of recent high school graduates. The Ohio college’s strategic plan for student completion takes a holistic approach to ensuring that students receive support tailored to their individual needs.

For example, Sinclair offers a mentor or guide for every student as they transition to college and into a career or transfer to a four-year institution. It also is seeking to re-engage students in campus life and to create a sense of community for online students.

Even so, students face a daunting array of challenges, college staff members found during 25K check-in calls to students. “What we found was alarming,” says a Sinclair spokeswoman. “Over half of all students are experiencing stress and mental health issues on a regular basis.”

The crisis is far from over, says Watson Spiva. Complete College America is calling for a new model of mental health care to be embedded on college campuses — one that is proactive and can be adjusted over time. This approach can include:

  • Providing effective triage and assessment and allowing students to walk in for a same-day intake or single session.
  • Being transparent about the level of care the college can support and providing alternative solutions such as off-campus or virtual services to cover gaps.
  • Creating a culture of wellness through classroom support, mental health days, peer and group counseling options, and skills building focused on stress reduction.

Sinclair has expanded its student services to include free and confidential 24/7 counseling, a mental health app, a mobile grocery and mobile health clinic, financial counseling, legal assistance, and help with medical advocacy. Its foundation also awarded $163K in emergency grants to students for nontuition needs during the last two years.

Community colleges need money to offer those services. And they often have to swim upstream to make the case for the sort of “braided” financial support from governments and philanthropies that is needed to deal with academic preparation gaps and mental health challenges.

“People tend to not think about wraparound supports at community colleges, because they’re not residential,” says Watson Spiva.

Trent says philanthropists often focus more on credentials than on the services community college students need to stay on track.

The Kicker: “We know that students can’t be expected to be successful just because you open the doors,” says Trent.

Open Tabs

Degree Requirements

Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, removed four-year degree requirements from 92% of state government roles, an estimated 65K jobs, according to multiple news reports. The executive order issued on Shapiro’s first full day in office also calls on state agencies to emphasize skills and experience in hiring. His office created a website for job seekers to filter openings based on degree requirements.

Hiring Woes

Finding and developing talent was tied for the top business priority CEOs identified in a recent survey by Accenture. Almost four in 10 said it was a main focus. About 90% of the CEOs also said chief HR officers play a key role in ensuring their company grows and is profitable — but fewer than half thought they were actually creating the conditions for HR leaders to drive business growth.

Gender Gap

Male high school graduates have more exposure to college and career options than their female peers, found a survey of recent graduates by YouScience. For example, 57% of male respondents said they felt prepared to make a career choice or declare a major compared to 41% of female respondents. Likewise, 78% of men reported talking with a teacher or counselor about options compared to 63% of women.

Performance Funding

WIOA allows governors to add performance metrics to those required to evaluate workforce programs under the federal law, according to a brief from the National Governors Association. Governors also can establish alternative funding formulas for allocating WIOA funds, while creating strong oversight guidelines for training providers that are included in a state’s eligible training provider list.

Tech Hiring

Career Karma has made a second round of layoffs, with the learning navigation platform cutting 82 workers over the last year, Natasha Mascarenhas reports for TechCrunch. The news suggests more staff cuts across the ed-tech sector may follow amid a possible economic slowdown, she reports, noting that the tech bootcamp space Career Karma works in appears to be facing uncertainty.

Experiential Learning

More than a third (39%) of young professionals say their colleges didn’t help them develop skills to deal with the emotional and behavioral challenges of transitioning to the workplace, according to a new report from the Mary Christie Institute. Shawn VanDerziel, executive director of NACE, told Higher Ed Dive that the findings illustrate the need for more work-based experiences, like internships.

Career Exploration

South Carolina’s Greenville County School District has begun introducing the idea of a career path to students in elementary school while giving them the option to follow those programs to middle and high schools, Ariel Gilreath reports for The Hechinger Report. The district, which plans to open a $12.7M CTE center soon, awarded 8,745 industry certifications to K-12 students last year, up from 601 in 2017.

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.