Breland: Community colleges face challenges, opportunities as COVID recovery continues
A student sits at a computer at San Jose City College. Photo courtesy of San Jose City College.

Historically, community college enrollment is highly correlated with the strength of the job market: enrollment generally increases 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, then steadily declined over the ensuing decade. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit community college enrollment particularly hard, it is reasonable to expect the pendulum to swing back the other way as displaced workers and those who put off joining the workforce seek education and training.

While these realities create challenges for community colleges throughout the state and nation, they also present a generational opportunity to reflect on the way we serve students and communities and integrate new technologies, new practices and new teaching modalities and pedagogies into our operations and teaching. As San Jose City College math professor Hasan Zillur Rahim recently wrote in his visionary essay, now is an opportune time to use online teaching as a catalyst to improve classroom teaching and learning.

As we work toward removing barriers to higher education access and student success, we must take lessons learned during the pandemic and apply them to how we move forward, leveraging our newfound capacity for remote operations to even better serve those who may have slipped through the cracks before.

Because of our mission of open access for all, community colleges typically serve an older and more diverse student body than those found at four-year universities. These adult learners often have competing priorities that a traditional college student may not have, so a traditional, brick-and-mortar college experience may not be the best fit. Instead of asking students to change their lives to fit into typical higher education offerings and schedules, we must rethink how we offer our courses and services to fit our students’ lives by meeting them where they are at, and in many cases that will continue to be online.

Even before the pandemic, community colleges increasingly sought out technologies to address the varied and diverse needs of students, which include balancing education with employment, child and elder care, transportation challenges and financial constraints. The pandemic and subsequent transition to remote teaching and student services further illustrates the importance of having a variety of options available so students can pursue an education regardless of what else they have competing for their time and attention.

But the innovation and creativity must go beyond just how, where and when an education is offered and also include the type of education being offered.

In addition to their associate degree offerings, community colleges enroll large numbers of students in certificate and non-credit training programs. Short-form, online work-oriented credentials that focus on the skills required for employment in specific fields are in greater demand now than ever before, and there is an opportunity to create new types of sub-baccalaureate credentials to better meet the needs of both employers and employees.

There is also a growing movement to better align community college credentials and curriculum with industry-based credentials. Although it is still relatively early in this work, alignment of industry-based credentials and community college curriculum is a trend that can ultimately lead to more effective pathways to degrees and better job market outcomes.

In order to realize these opportunities and meet the growing demand for digital pathways to careers and bachelor’s degrees, community colleges must be at the forefront of the digital future. The shift in strategy and resourcing that this will require offers a compelling opportunity for large-scale impact for philanthropists, entrepreneurs, policy leaders, institutional partners and others interested in this crucial sector of higher education.

For many institutions, the last 18 months have largely been devoted to managing the pandemic. Now it is time for higher education leaders to shift their focus to considerations beyond the pandemic, including better integration of technology into institutional planning moving forward.

Institutions should examine data collected over the last year-and-a-half to determine the effectiveness of online education and student support services, and determine how efficacious these modalities have been and whether they should be continued—or even scaled up—to positively impact effectiveness and efficiency in student success.

Face-to-face instruction and student support will always play a major role in higher education, but the future of our workforce and continued growth of our economy depend on the innovative utilization of new and emerging technologies to effectively train the workforce. Community colleges must pursue and apply innovation in educational technology to create these pathways for upward mobility, especially here in Silicon Valley.

Due to their local governing boards and more nimble organizational structure, there is no sector within higher education better equipped to quickly respond to workforce demands by creating programs based on industry and community needs than community colleges.

Local and highly affordable, community colleges are engines of economic opportunity. A national working group that included numerous community college leaders recently produced a report that aptly characterized the community college as “the indispensable institution.” The report calls for a reimagining of community college, including more alignment with industry and increased digital options.

The strong history of community colleges as sites of innovation provides hope for a near future in which our institutions will make an even greater impact on not only the lives of individual students and their families, but entire communities and regional economies as well.

San José Spotlight columnist Dr. Byron D. Clift Breland is chancellor of San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, which operates San Jose City College, Evergreen Valley College, the Milpitas College Extension and the Community College Center for Economic Mobility. His columns appear every first Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at [email protected]

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