Credit: Brooks Kraft/Getty Images
September 13, 2022 9:13 AM EDT

Over the past few years, community colleges have faced a perfect storm of interconnected threats: a tight labor market pulling would-be students to go straight into the workforce, dwindling enrollment, and a student-debt crisis.

For these institutions, survival has depended on the ability to innovate and adapt, as community colleges have met the rising existential pressure by pivoting to new approaches on everything from costs to admissions to raison d’etre. I asked two prominent community-college presidents—Laura B. Leatherwood of Blue Ridge Community College in North Carolina and Beverly Walker-Griffea of Mott Community College in Michigan—how they’ve done this. Here are excerpts of their replies, lightly edited for space and clarity:

Describe the tight labor market’s effect on community colleges.

Leatherwood: On the employer side, we’re seeing local companies more motivated than ever to consider innovative approaches to building their workforce pipelines. We help these employers conduct labor-market studies to scan the local environment, and bring them together to drive local solutions through events like our recent Talent Summit, where manufacturing leaders collaborated to improve employee recruitment and retention.

Blue Ridge also meets specific workforce needs through our apprenticeship program. As our labor market has tightened, the demand has only increased for apprenticeships where job seekers can simultaneously receive training, on-the-job experience, college credit, and a paycheck. Our apprenticeship program began in 2019 with four partner-employers, and three years later, we have 27 and growing.

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Walker-Griffea: In this economy, employers need a talented workforce now, and the community college can skill-up individuals quickly and get them into jobs immediately. Mott Community College has several programs where students can spend a few weeks in training and land jobs making as much as $60,000 a year, like dental assisting, sterile processing technician, and electrical lineworker. Electric lineworkers can even make over $100,000 after two years. More employers are finding that developing partnerships with community colleges to gain a direct pipeline of employees is advantageous to their sustainability and success.

Do you think community college graduates need to go on to get a four-year degree to be competitive in the job market?

Leatherwood: We do see employers updating their views on education as they recruit. Some 51% of online job listings required a four-year degree in 2017. By 2021, that share had declined to 44%.

Community colleges aim to provide the most efficient educational experience possible, providing students with precise on-ramps and pathways to employment as they seek a specific credential, workforce training experience, or two-year degree. Professions like nursing, accounting, engineering, and business can all be pursued with a two-year degree. Students looking to increase earning power and other opportunities through a four-year degree can jumpstart this pursuit through more affordable pathways and transferable credits offered by community colleges.

Walker-Griffea: Many employers are examining the need for degrees as a requirement for entry-level positions and focusing on skills. Nickle LaMoreaux, chief human resources officer for IBM, made a bold declaration last year: “You don’t need a college degree to have a very good job at IBM.”

The need for a four-year degree truly depends on a student’s career path and their long-term goals. The advantage of attending a community college is that there are many opportunities to choose a pathway that fits an individual’s personal needs. Many of the students at Mott Community College are working, have families, and need opportunities and support to achieve a degree or certificate while balancing personal priorities. Also, community college graduates continue to outpace bachelor’s degree and high school diploma graduates in job growth and occupational demand across various employment sectors.

Given the fast pace in technological change against the slower pace of corporate innovation, many institutions are obsessed with training and skill-building. What can we learn from the community-college approach on this?

Leatherwood: Because of the pace of technological innovation, it has never been more important for educators to customize programming and adapt facilities to real-world needs. This is fortunately where community colleges shine, offering instruction through both degree programs and short-term workforce training programs.

Walker-Griffea: Several programs are designed to ensure that employers can send employees to community colleges to upskill their work. At MCC, a mobile learning lab offers various types of short-term training opportunities on business premises. Trainings are tailored specifically for the workplace and offered in modalities that improve employee job retention and upward mobility. Community colleges offer a menu of professional training and product prototyping opportunities that some small businesses cannot readily afford, and use state-of-the-art technology.

That cutting-edge technology also allows students to practice and learn until they are successfully competent in the skills desired by employers. Extra time and support working with skilled professionals outside of the classroom builds confidence and mastery in the students’ chosen field of study.

What do you make of the declining enrollment in community colleges and college overall?

Leatherwood: For many years, census data such as birth rates were indicating that colleges nationwide would soon be experiencing enrollment declines. The pandemic exacerbated this problem for many institutions, but it was far from surprising.

Understanding that demographic changes were coming, we intentionally worked to engage students throughout the pandemic. Whenever possible, we kept our doors open and resources available. We also increased our outreach to critical and underrepresented populations such as potential adult learners. Our staff and faculty also worked hard to keep lines of communication open with our students.

This has ultimately led to our enrollment increasing in recent semesters, but we do not take that for granted. Like all community colleges, we must continually work to distinguish our institution, meet needs in timely and creative ways, and consider our decisions through the lens of the student experience.

Walker-Griffea: The pandemic affected community colleges considerably due to a substantial number of community college programs offered in person. Switching to online was unfathomable until it occurred. Community colleges had to instantaneously change the way they taught courses in traditionally face-to-face career and technical fields like cosmetology, heating and air conditioning, and automotive.

Students relying on the college campus for studying, using the internet, and completing assignments had a difficult time without that support. I observed a student taking a remote class on zoom in a chaotic household. Each time she tried to find a new place to listen to the lecture, a family member would appear and begin unintentionally disrupting her environment. She ended up in a closet to concentrate.

During the pandemic, students took a break from attending community colleges nationally. Mott Community College’s enrollment dived over 20%. The workforce became a competitor by offering hard-to-pass-up pay for entry-level positions. Students’ mental health suffered, and many started to question if gaining a college credential was worthwhile. Some were traumatized and paralyzed in decision-making as they spent long periods of time with family members, or alone, only seeing loved ones on a computer screen.

For some student groups, trauma, fear, uncertainty, a job glut, and higher wages for entry-level work have caused them to not return. In particular, Black student enrollment in community colleges has decreased. Mott Community College’s main campus is in a city that is 54% African American. During the pandemic, enrollment among African American students plummeted by 15% compared to the year before and 30% compared to 2015. Local K-12 school districts also had a large share of their enrolled students disengage and disappear. This decline signals a new potential trend for the Black community: A significant amount of Black young people may not be prepared to take high-paying jobs that can sustain them economically and create a generation of wealth.

How does President Biden’s loan forgiveness program affect your student population?

Walker-Griffea: A federal loan forgiveness program can change college students’ life options. College debt is one of the factors that keeps students from supporting a family adequately, pursuing higher college credentials, and owning a house or a car.

Community college students can have life challenges that force them to leave classes without earning a credential and incur delinquent financial college accounts. Students with debts owed to colleges cannot attend that college until the debt is owed. They often cannot attend other colleges, either, because they cannot acquire the requisite transcript from the college where the debt is owed.

MCC statistics show that between 2014 and 2021, 3,736 students have delinquent college financial accounts, owing an average of $947 to the college. Less than a thousand dollars is keeping these students from acquiring a degree or certificate that can lead them to a high-paying job. Flexibility and forgiveness of debt is a means to ensuring that our nation’s communities have highly trained and skilled talent and families have living wages, economic prosperity, and an excellent quality of life.

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