Selective colleges and their leafy residential campuses are nice, but in these pandemic times, community colleges are coming into the spotlight. With an uncertain fall and a deep economic downturn, many believe two-year colleges may be the best answer to meeting the higher education needs of both traditional and non-traditional students and workers looking to learn new skills.
Historically, community college enrollment is highly correlated with the strength of the job market, and it typically booms during challenging times for workers and declines when jobs are plentiful and the opportunity cost of going to school is high. Community college enrollment in the U.S. peaked at the end of the last recession in 2010, and has been declining ever since. With COVID-19, the pendulum has now swung back the other way.
Local and highly affordable, community colleges are engines of economic opportunity. A national working group that I was recently a part of—led by non-profit Opportunity America—recently produced a report that aptly characterized the community college as “the indispensable institution.” As a group, we called for a reimagining of community college, including moving toward more alignment with industry and more digital options. Community colleges are often the institutions of choice for part-time students, and over the last two decades these institutions have enrolled a much more diverse student population, placing community colleges at the center of economic opportunity and racial equity. In fact, the majority of community college enrollment today is non-white.
Community college has even risen to a key policy point in national and state politics, with politicians touting plans and creating models for “free college,” which often mean tuition-free options for community college as a pathway to four-year degrees or other credentials.
It’s also worth noting that even in these times of declining public confidence in the higher education sector, Americans have an overwhelmingly positive view of community colleges. Nearly 40 percent of all undergraduates in the U.S. attend community colleges.
Unfortunately, however, there is danger on the horizon when it comes to community colleges’ financial footing and overall capacity. As the COVID-19 recession decimates state and local government budgets, funding for community colleges is poised to suffer. Just prior to the pandemic, University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski warned about precisely this risk, highlighting the role of public colleges as “shock absorbers” in the next recession. If we want to make sure community colleges can meet the rising demand, we need to not only devise new policies and funding mechanisms, but we also need to re-envision the strategies and infrastructure of community colleges so that they can play a powerful role in the economic recovery.
A Need for More Strategic Online-Learning Capacity
Following the sudden move to online and remote learning across all of American higher education last spring, many community colleges will be operating online this fall. According to the latest tracking data from the Chronicle of Higher Education, two-year colleges are significantly more likely than other institution types to be planning for a primarily or fully online fall semester.
More broadly, it is an era of surging demand for online postsecondary learning. While high-resolution data for community colleges isn’t available, we can see evidence for this in proxies such as Google search trends, consumers’ growing openness and intention to study online, booming MOOC enrollment, and publicly-traded online learning company enrollment results. But are community colleges ready for this digital transformation?
With a storied history of serving working adults and offering flexible educational programs, one might assume that community colleges are more focused on online models than their four-year peers. Yet community colleges are in a number of ways behind in the embrace of online delivery.
While community colleges are leaders in offering individual online classes—almost half of all community college students took at least one online class—only 14 percent of all community college students are enrolled in exclusively online programs, according to U.S. Department of Education data. That’s a lower share than at four-year institutions, and much lower than the 31 percent of U.S. graduate degree enrollment that is fully online.
Although there are standouts such as Ivy Tech Community College, Rio Salado College and Houston Community College—which each teach around 100,000 or more fully online students—these are exceptions to the rule. The typical community college or system is less likely than its four-year peers to be well-positioned to deliver programs fully at a distance.
Consider also that the economic model of most Online Program Managers, or OPMs—the edtech firms that have powered much of four-year institutions online growth—focus on higher-cost graduate degree programs. And, due to the nature of their offerings and mission, community offerings are largely absent in the algorithm- and AI-driven future of higher education that is being pioneered by low-cost, MOOC-based degrees.
Given the sizeable and crucial population of students served by community colleges, all of this means that policymakers, edtech companies, four-year institutional partners and others must consider how we can build a technology infrastructure and a set of strategies to transition community colleges into the increasingly digital future. This could include new firms, service models and software tools that are more tailored to community colleges’ needs and offerings. That direction is heralded by the “unbundling” of services that is already a trend in the OPM market.
Community colleges also require strategy and implementation support—and in general, can benefit from more research on the efficacy of online learning and on best practices). Better state-level coordination could also help. One example is Calbright, the new online community college in California. That institution has had a rocky start, but if nothing else, it demonstrates the appetite among many for new models that build greater online learning capacity—and the difficulty of doing so in existing structures.
Digital Credentialing and Work-Integrated Learning
Community colleges are also at the epicenter of the revolution in credentialing. That presents both an opportunity and a challenge.
In addition to their associate degree offerings, community colleges enroll millions of students in certificate and non-credit training programs. Short-form, online, work-oriented credentials are exactly what is in greater demand today due to COVID-19, as Strada Education Network’s timely recent public opinion polls have captured. There’s an opportunity to create new types of sub-baccalaureate credentials—many of which have historically had a mixed record in terms of outcomes but hold great promise.
A number of community colleges around the country have been leaders in credentialing innovation, but our research has indicated that community colleges will need support in overcoming a number of barriers to move in this direction. These barriers include the lack of the right technology systems and a lack of accepted standards; the need for flexibility with institutional processes; financial aid constraints; union labor issues; funding and resources for product development and instructional design; and the need for support from leadership and faculty. Employer engagement and the ability to meet job market demands is central to developing new credentials of value—and this is a key imperative for community colleges and another area that will require support.
An additional growing trend is the alignment of community college credentials and curriculum with non-degree, industry-based credentials. Broward College in Florida has been a leader in integrating industry certifications into its degree programs. Google’s expanding portfolio of IT certificate programs offered via Coursera is being aligned with curriculum at more than 100 community colleges with implementation partner Jobs For the Future. IBM and Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina have partnered to jointly offer a digital badge on blockchain technology. The Colorado Community College System was an early pioneer in offering digital badges.
Although it is still early, the alignment of industry-based non-degree credentials and community college learning is a significant trend that can lead to more-effective pathways to academic credit, degrees, and better job market outcomes. Four-year institutions also have a role to play and opportunity here by forging deeper, more intentional partnerships with community colleges that go beyond traditional articulation agreements—and helping to create stronger pathways for academic credit transfer and to employment.
More than ever before, community colleges will face intense competition from all sorts of educational providers. But to better meet the demand for digital pathways to four-year degrees, non-degree offerings and work-related learning, they must position themselves for the digital future. The evolution in strategy and resourcing that this will require is an exciting opportunity for impact for entrepreneurs, policy leaders, institutional partners and others interested in this crucial sector of higher education.