At the just-concluded summer meeting of state community college directors, updates were more positive than they have been in recent years.
Meeting earlier this week in Boston, the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges — an affiliate of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) — officials from 14 states described recent victories that community colleges in their state have enjoyed, including: funding increases from state legislatures in Louisiana, Illinois, Michigan and Missouri; new investments for deferred maintenance and capacity-building in West Virginia; and enrollment increases in Washington, Virginia and Indiana.
Several states highlighted programs they recently launched or will soon launch to help reduce barriers to postsecondary education access for students, such as:
- Louisiana’s M.J. Foster Promise Program, which allows eligible students to receive a year of funding without completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
- Wisconsin’s and Oregon’s bolstered focus and funding for open educational resources.
- Massachusetts’ MassReconnect program, which provides free community college for adults without a two-year degree.
Hard work ahead
But community college officials still face plenty of challenges:
- Colleges in Indiana and Connecticut, where economic growth has been relatively slow, have faced hurdles receiving sufficient funding.
- In Ohio and Missouri, state directors are navigating competing visions on the part of lawmakers and community college leaders over visions for the future of higher education.
- Illinois is working to understand how the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on race-based admissions could affect programs targeted towards underrepresented student populations.
Directors in several states noted that while free-tuition programs are succeeding in recruiting new and returning students, better communication and messaging are needed to inform these students about non-tuition costs and financial aid options.
Looking ahead, many state directors said that ensuring enrollment meets workforce needs, reaching adults without a credential and helping them access postsecondary education, and the role of community colleges in meeting students’ mental health, nutrition and housing needs were all issues at the forefront of their minds.
Deeper diver into workforce issues
The annual meeting of state directors also gave attendees an opportunity to hear from researchers, experts and policymakers on issues sure to affect state community college systems. Opening the presentations was Marty Alvarado, vice president for postsecondary education and training at Jobs for the Future, who discussed emerging opportunities and challenges for community colleges, including: the continued need to improve transfer pathways; strengthening skill recognition; embracing an economy that will require lifelong learning; and positioning community colleges as ideal partners for this work.
Many of these takeaways were echoed by Michelle Van Noy, director and associate research professor at the Education and Employment Research Center at Rutgers University (New Jersey), and Iris Palmer, deputy director for community colleges at New America. Van Noy gave an overview of her work to refine definitions around non-degree credentials and assess their value in an evolving labor market. She noted the importance of good data in this task, and several state directors expressed interest in working with her team to provide state-level data where possible.
Palmer focused her presentation on efforts at the institutional, system, state and federal level to reengage adult students – a key opportunity for community colleges seeing declining numbers of high school graduates.
Economist and labor market expert Ben Armstrong, executive director of the Industrial Performance Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, highlighted the changing labor market and what he calls the declining share of the “middle” jobs – skilled jobs that provide good wages but require less than a four-year degree. For decades, he noted, these jobs comprised the backbone of America. However, due to automation, technological improvements and the decline of manufacturing, he has observed a hollowing of the job market – increasing shares of low-skill jobs with relatively low wages and increasing shares of high-wage, high-skill jobs that require a four-year degree or more.
Armstrong said his research shows an association between a decline in middle jobs and low opportunities for economic mobility. But the opposite is also true in many communities, including throughout Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas, which have seen growth in middle jobs and economic mobility for state residents. Rebuilding middle-skills jobs and promoting economic mobility, Armstrong said, should be the role of community colleges over the next decade.
Title IX, affirmative action rulings
State directors also heard from Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Education Department (ED). She addressed the Supreme Court’s recent ruling overturning the use of race-based admissions in higher education, noting that ED is only focused on the fact that the opinion specifically and solely addressed the admissions process. She reminded officials that the Office for Civil Rights has many resources on federal civil rights laws related to race, shared ancestry or religion, sex and gender, and students with disabilities. This includes resources related to Title IX and pregnancy.
Related article: ED summit highlights equal opportunity in higher ed
Serving the whole student
Finally, the state directors heard from practitioners working to best serve the “whole student” as access, retention, and completion imperatives. Jeanie Tietjen, founder and director of the Institute for Trauma, Adversity, and Resilience in Higher Education at MassBay Community College, spoke about the growing movement to apply trauma-informed pedagogical approaches to higher education instruction. These strategies have long been recognized as key to student learning and success in the K-12 system, but the higher education community has lagged behind.
Lutful Khan from the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges, George Ambriz from Berkshire Community College, and Evan Erilus from Bunker Hill Community College presented to the state directors about the Massachusetts SUCCESS Program. The SUCCESS Program – which stands for Supporting Urgent Community College Equity through Student Services – is a state-level investment in wraparound supports at the state’s community colleges. Each college developed or enhanced its own program to reach an underserved student population and used most of the funding for support personnel, including advisors, counselors, mental health professionals, tutors and peer advocates.
Berkshire’s program focuses on first-generation students, while Bunker Hill’s program focuses on men of color. Across the state, SUCCESS participants had a 16 percentage-point increase in persistence compared to students who did not engage in the program.
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Kathryn Gimborys is a government relations manager at the American Association of Community Colleges.
Alexis Gravely is a legislative analyst at AACC.