Community Colleges Have Long Powered the Economy. To Sustain That Role,...

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Community Colleges Have Long Powered the Economy. To Sustain That Role, They Must Innovate.

By Mordecai I. Brownlee (Columnist)     Sep 9, 2020

Community Colleges Have Long Powered the Economy. To Sustain That Role, They Must Innovate.

The marriage between industry, community colleges, and career and technical education is real. However, perhaps now is the time for marital counseling.

Dating back to the groundbreaking Morrill Act of 1862, which formally recognized the role of higher education in preparing citizens for vocations, community-based education has been a staple in America’s history. We educators should remain committed to teaching all students with the mission of advancing our cities, states and nation by preparing citizens to meet the economic development and workforce needs of today and tomorrow.

But as with any great relationship, the bond between employers and community colleges comes with moments of delight, times of opportunity, and calls for change. We need our career and technical education programs to innovate in order to prepare students for high-wage, high-skill, high-demand science, technical, engineering, and mathematics-based occupations that are crucial in re-tooling America for a prosperous future. This need is urgent due to the demographic, economic and technological changes shaping the workforce.

To envision how community colleges need to evolve in their partnership with industry, let’s first take a look back at how far the pair has come together.

Industrialization, Economic Mobility and Community Colleges

Reflecting on the advancements of the 19th century, the age of industrialization brought about great prosperity for the U.S., with its operational expansions of iron, steel, and coal. To put things into context, at one point the country’s steel industry employed roughly 650,000 persons. At its peak, coal production employed more than 862,000 persons as coal miners. Compare that to companies today, like the e-commerce giant Amazon, which in 2019 reportedly employed 798,000 persons and is currently projected to employ more than 1 million by the end of 2020.

Alongside industrial growth came the birth of community colleges and career and technical education designed to efficiently equip students to take on job opportunities in high-demand occupations. These schools served as the gateway to social and economic mobility and played a significant role in the movement toward greater gender and racial equity.

One institution with a historic academic and career and technical portfolio that serves as a shining example of this movement is St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, Texas, where I work. In 1898, James Steptoe Johnston, a bishop of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, founded the St. Philip’s Normal and Industrial School in San Antonio to educate and train women recently emancipated from slavery in a trade. In 1902, Artemisia Bowden, the daughter of former slaves, joined the school as a teacher and an administrator and remarkably expanded the mission of the school, founding what is now known as St. Philip’s College.

Built on the foundation of Bowden’s 52 years of leadership, today St. Philip’s College stands as the only higher ed institution to be federally designated as both a historically Black college (HBCU) and a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI). This comprehensive institution currently serves more than 13,500 students and offers an array of career and technical and transfer-geared academic programs on two campuses and offers in-seat instruction on all Joint Base San Antonio military bases.

Educating Battle Veterans, and Battling Stigma

At the end of World War II, America saw a surge in community college enrollments. During their period of peak growth in the mid-20th century, community colleges were being established at the average rate of one college per a week. The G.I. Bill opened the door for higher education attainment for many service members who used their benefits to prepare to reenter the workforce.

What was called “vocational education” in the 1984 Carl D. Perkins Act evolved into “career and technical education” when the law was updated in 2006. Today, community colleges all over the nation have academic and career and technical instructional portfolios that prepare students for high-demand, high-wage jobs.

However, as the U.S. turned the corner toward the 21st century, a stigma began to permeate society with regard to community colleges. This is not to say that a stigma didn’t exist earlier, but it was at this point that public perception of these institutions soured, as community colleges were seen as subpar. Perhaps this misconception was born out of prejudices against students whom society deemed non-college material, yet community colleges welcomed and supported these students when other institutional gatekeepers failed to do so.

In 2019, Steve Robinson, now president of Lansing Community College, began the online #EndCCStigma campaign, which led to discussions about the stigma associated with community colleges and created space for educators and students to voice their personal stories and opinions regarding the matter. Eliminating this stigma in itself represents an opportunity to strengthen the ties between industry and higher education.

Coming Changes Require Innovation

In order for industry and community colleges to recommit to their marriage, educators, employers and policymakers must:

  • acknowledge the economic realities that actually exist in society and recognize the power of community colleges in driving workforce development to address those realities;
  • collectively incentivize student attainment of career and technical credentials;
  • rally around the importance of workforce preparedness, especially for millennials and Generation Z.

These are priorities because demographers say a “gray tsunami” is coming. By 2030, all baby boomers will be age 65 or older. This means that soon the American workforce will experience a vacuum in several trade and technical occupations. In addition, job losses due to increased regulation, consumer demand shifts and globalization mean many American jobs stand to be revolutionized by robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

As America prepares to move into a post-pandemic economy, one shaped by the pending gray tsunami and technological change, now is the time for our nation’s industries and society as a whole to rediscover the historical significance of community colleges and their importance in the development of the American workforce. Furthermore, it is also imperative that community colleges move to quickly innovate their approaches to teaching and learning, especially in the areas of career and technical education and continuing education.

The following are a few recommendations for community college leaders to consider in the call for innovation:

Community colleges must reinvent their relationships with local industry and ensure alignment with employer demands.

As the times change, so does industry, and so should education. Due to a variety of reasons including high tuition prices, lack of gainful employment among graduates, and student debt, America has lost faith in the importance of college degrees. However, community colleges are best positioned to develop low-cost, streamlined programs that serve as guided pathways toward employment and economic empowerment. Innovation requires hard questions to be asked, and community colleges must be willing to ask the communities and industries they serve whether their institutions are effectively meeting the needs of those stakeholders. If not, college leaders MUST be willing to make the hard decisions and pivot quickly to meet those needs. Simply put, a core pillar of the community college mission is to empower the communities they serve.

Community colleges must adopt emerging technologies in career and technical education.

Yes, there are some career and technical programs that must be taught through lab-based, hands-on instruction. However, educators should rethink how we interpret “hands-on.” Artificial intelligence, virtual simulation and other innovations in technology are totally reshaping the American workforce. Community colleges should work with local industry partners to incorporate those technologies into instruction, thus allowing institutions to maximize and/or repurpose critical physical campus infrastructure rather than depending upon the development of new buildings. As state funding towards higher education continues to decline, community and technical colleges must become more entrepreneurial in their approaches toward institutional sustainability, which requires increased efficiencies.

Community colleges must embrace a new ideology toward customer service that maintains the integrity of academe.

In my opinion, there is an arrogance that our institutions have embraced for far too long that has led some to believe that their institutions are the sole gateway toward employment in high-wage, high-skill, high-demand occupations. And that perspective couldn’t be further from the truth. Due to higher education’s lack of responsiveness, industry has recently been developing its own apprenticeship pathways toward workforce development by partnering directly with K-12 schools. Community colleges MUST move quickly to address this by shifting their own approach to workforce development. Especially in today’s culture, where the call for innovation and increased efficiencies are abundant, community colleges cannot afford to be viewed as inefficient and non-responsive intermediaries.

Community colleges have long sought to educate and prepare people for the workforce of our country. By refreshing their career and technical education programs in union with industry, they will bear offspring that make both partners proud: credentialed citizens ready to build careers.

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