Racing toward a better future

Elva LeBlanc (second from left), chancellor of the Tarrant County College District in Texas, observes students in the surgical technology program. (Photo: TCCD)

The world is changing rapidly. In just 18 months, generative artificial intelligence (AI) has redefined the nature of many jobs. Automation continues to transform countless industries, and demographic shifts are having a powerful impact on all aspects of our society.

Community colleges leaders are tasked with keeping ahead of this exponential change. But one thing that won’t change is the ability of institutions to evolve quickly in serving local needs effectively.

This excerpt comes from the current issue of Community college Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

“For more than a century, our sector has served as an on-ramp to the middle class for millions of Americans,” says Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). “Community colleges have been responsive to the needs of students and their communities, and I don’t see that changing in the next five to 10 years. In fact, I see adaptation as our superpower.”

As employers demand new skills and competencies, workers also will need a higher level of critical thinking and analysis. Community colleges are perfectly positioned to be the nexus for integrating academic and skills training to meet complex workforce requirements, delivering this education in new and creative ways.

“The future community college will be more than an on-ramp,” Bumphus says. “It will become a launch pad. As new generations reach our colleges, they will view their education differently and demand new ways of learning.”

Innovation will be key

Innovation has always been central to the work of community colleges. As Elva LeBlanc, chancellor of the Tarrant County College District (TCCD) in Fort Worth, Texas, notes, “We must constantly reinvent ourselves to align with the needs of the business community that supports us.”

But with a looming enrollment cliff and other challenges facing colleges in the next few years, adopting an entrepreneurial mindset will be absolutely critical in forging a better tomorrow. Community college leaders will have to find creative ways to attract and retain new students. This also means identifying and removing the barriers the stand in their way.

Like most community colleges, TCCD has extended its programs into local high schools with early college and dual-enrollment programs in the 20 school systems it serves. It has established partnerships with area businesses to upskill and reskill employees in rapidly evolving careers such as manufacturing and cybersecurity. It has created a prisoner education program in partnership with the Tarrant County Jail that helps incarcerated people earn business or welding certifications so they can find jobs once they’re released. And this fall, TCCD is launching an adult high school program for people who have aged out of the traditional public schools.

“We train students whom others aren’t willing to work with,” LeBlanc says.

TCCD has also been a leader in online education for many years. Its TCC Connect program, which began in 2014, offers flexible learning options for nontraditional students who work or otherwise can’t attend classes in person during the week. Nearly 35,000 students were enrolled for the spring 2024 semester, including several dozen students outside Tarrant County.

The college has been able to experiment with new instructional models through TCC Connect. For instance, it offers continuous open enrollment for some programs, as well as micro-credentials and badges — and students can earn credit for prior knowledge through a competency-based approach to education.

“It’s not a fully-formed butterfly yet,” LeBlanc says, “but we continue to work on the program to make it student-centered.”

Attracting a diverse range of students

As a result of these innovations, TCCD is reaching a broader and more diverse range of students than it would serve otherwise. Although the college lost some students during the pandemic, this number was not nearly as high as the losses that other local colleges experienced.

Being innovative and entrepreneurial requires being willing to work with any organization that can help meet the college’s goals. For instance, TCCD juggles relationships with more than 1,200 community and business partners.

“We get along with anybody who can help our students,” LeBlanc says.

It also means being agile enough to move quickly in response to changing industry demands.

Because of the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District, which features original brick walkways and wooden corrals that call to mind the Old West, the city has earned the nickname “Cowtown” — and many movies are filmed on location there.

When movie studio representatives approached the city’s colleges last year and asked for their proposals to start a new workforce program that would prepare local graduates to work in the film industry, TCCD said it could get its program off the ground within six months — blowing the other schools’ plans out of the water.

When you put the needs of students first, LeBlanc says, “you can perform extraordinary feats.”

Read the entire article.

About the Author

Dennis Pierce
Dennis Pierce is an education writer based in Boston.
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