Economic development: Next step for community colleges?


Workforce development is synonymous with community colleges in most parts of the country — but what about economic development?

For many, two-year colleges’ role in local or state-wide workforce development implies their role in economic development. However, some advocates say community colleges could be more active and influential in that effort and even serve as leaders given their expertise.

A new paper from the Education & Employment Research Center (EERC) at Rutgers (New Jersey) outlines a model to help community colleges and partnering stakeholders conceptualize an approach.

“Community colleges may view their work in a larger regional context and partake in collaborations that provide this larger perspective and more intentionally seek to meet economic development goals,” says the paper released this week. “They may approach their activities with greater levels of collaboration — to take on a leadership role in their community with regard to economic development.”

The report “was an attempt to step back and take a look at the field, in terms of how other researchers and leaders have conceptualized economic development for community colleges, … and to put out a framework for thinking about it in more of a common language that we can use,” said EERC Director Michelle Van Noy, a co-author of the report.

Gaining traction

The idea of community colleges’ role in economic development is not new — a number of community colleges, especially in large urban areas, have been involved in such efforts for a while, and some state and federal initiatives have, over the years, included two-year colleges in economic development strategies.

But with new massive federal investments ranging from infrastructure to advanced manufacturing, plus discussions nationally about a resurgence of interest in vocational and trade jobs, advocates and stakeholders are more intentionally considering two-year colleges’ position in economic development, especially regionally. The report observes their efforts produce key blocks for economic development, such as producing a skilled workforce, business supports and regional engagement through activities such as economic scans and economic planning, convening industry and stakeholder clusters, and assisting in crafting policies and regulations, to name a few.

“It’s an opportune moment to move community colleges in that direction, and I think many are,” Van Noy said.

More reports to come

The EERC paper, which summarizes existing research on the topic, is part of a series that the center is working on that explores the issue. Future papers will delve into specific examples of community college technician education and economic development. The center is in the midst of analyzing data and expects later in the year to share its findings, Van Noy said.

EERC started exploring the topic with a study of the economic development impact of community colleges participating in the National Science Foundation-funded Advanced Technological Education program. The center last summer released two reports on those efforts.

Van Noy will participate in a panel discussion on January 27 on credentials of value during the American Association of Community Colleges‘ annual Workforce Development Institute in New Orleans and also on a panel exploring workforce policy issues on January 28.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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