Have we found the gateway to transform community colleges?


Community colleges are certainly “having a moment.” Congress, states and private philanthropy have invested billions of dollars during the Covid-19 pandemic (including $10 billion just in the American Rescue Plan earlier this year). They see community colleges as a logical key to solving both the equity and talent crises. But, as “free community college” was just removed from the next federal mega-spending bill, it is becoming clear that the investment may be a “one-time” infusion at a time when our colleges are having a major identity crisis.   

So now what? In many ways, the past few weeks have further demonstrated the need for community colleges to be more than just an affordable option. Enrollment has declined dramatically over the last decade as our traditional college-age customers dwindle in numbers and prospective students vote with their feet. Some of the best community colleges report that private boot camps are beginning to set up shop near their campuses to compete for students. Boot camps, on average, cost $10,000 more than one year of the average in-district community college tuition and fees, and few of them offer scholarships because they are not tied to federal student aid.

Yet boot camps are gaining ground with students who can afford them. Why? Because they know how to market to students; offer rolling start dates to fit student schedules; and hire industry experts to quickly teach the latest skill stacks in tech, marketing, data analytics and healthcare support.

Business analysts would call our problem a failure of the sector to see “product/market fit.” In plain English, they would charge that community colleges are stuck in traditional collegiate delivery methods and academic silos and are not meeting the changing needs and demographics of their 12 million customers. Even the standard “credit hour,” developed in 1906 to calculate faculty workload and pensions and not student learning, has become obsolete.

A new approach

The need for faster, flexible and visible skills training and credentialing is becoming more real than ever as the “skills-based hiring economy” takes hold. Community colleges are well positioned at a critical moment to serve the growing population of “new majority learners” and employers who are desperate to fill their employment gaps.

The Community College Growth Engine Fund was set up just before the pandemic to help community colleges lean into a future role, more as regional talent agents than as the cafeteria-style course emporium and university training wheels program imagined 70 years ago. The Fund offered a disciplined design accelerator to develop shorter-term credentials — shorter than a degree, but longer than industry certifications that have recently become popular. It also offered to design those credentials with employers to earn the coveted industry endorsement.

Six of the largest community college systems joined in the first cohort, producing 30 “micro-pathways” in the first year. These are seen as job role-specific credentials, taking less than a year to earn, that lead directly to living-wage jobs but also stack to a degree, which can be earned later or part-time while working.

The colleges co-designed the credentials with some 40 employers, and at Pima, we can already report that interest seems high. Six hundred learners reached out in the first month to consider the programs, branded as PimaFastTrack, in industries key to southern Arizona such as automated industrial technology, cybersecurity/IT, building and construction technology. We are pleased to see that the majority of applicants are from communities of color and identify as under or unemployed, most often due to job loss during the pandemic.

Different credentials

Many of us were already working with a few key industries or employers to address their talent shortages, but these initiatives were hard to scale. We were also not used to thinking like consumer “product developers,” matching curriculum paths based on regional data for high-demand roles and designing the learning experience with the set of strict criteria the Fund imposed based on learner feedback. And we had not figured out how to transfer the growing number of “non-credit” technical skill-based courses to the academic side to help students get degree credit and financial aid.

Now, one year in, we are encouraged enough to glimpse a future role for community colleges as a more proactive talent development marketplace for their regions, focused on populations who need additional support and low-cost access.

A disciplined design process, across several industries, can help us create a common currency: a new type of credential that is faster and more targeted than a degree, but stackable if desired, and that an employer can request or require in a job posting. Pima imagines building out its entire curriculum this way and collapsing the artificial distinction between credit and non-credit, which is irrelevant and confusing to learners and employers alike.

The proposed new paradigm is a series of connected universal design maps that translate learning outcomes and credits to skills that employers are, more and more, mapping into “competency frameworks.” If the frameworks are adopted by industries, state agencies and high school districts, we could create the Google Maps of opportunity with community colleges playing a central role in managing the supply and demand of talent.

We have started informally describing micro-pathways as a “gateway” or “silver bullet” into lifelong education. And this year has taught us that the construct is working not just for learners who can more easily dip a toe into higher ed, but, interestingly, for all of us: for faculty trying to adapt this model so their students can get traditional course credit, for employers who need templates and processes to better articulate the skills they need for individual roles, and for those of us lucky enough to be stewards of these institutions as a blueprint for Community College 2.0 comes into focus. 

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Lee Lambert is chancellor of Pima Community College in Arizona.
Kathleen deLaski is founder and board chair of Education Design Lab.

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