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Community Colleges as Economic Saviors

Recovery efforts put a spotlight on the two-year sector
University Business, Mar 2010

“Never in my life would I have expected community colleges to be called potential saviors of the economy,” says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “When the downturn started and people were being laid off, community colleges sent teams into companies to talk to workers about their options,” he explains. The importance of community colleges progressed from there.

As the recession drags on and more people turn to higher ed as a way to weather the storm, community colleges are increasingly in demand. “I think we are going to drive this economy back to where it needs to be,” says Mary Spangler, president of Houston Community College. Applications are up across all sectors of higher ed ranging from graduate school down, but community colleges are getting a double dose from unemployed adults looking for new skills as well as traditional age students looking to save money. According to AACC data, over the past two years, part-time enrollment at community colleges has increased 17 percent, while full-time enrollment increased 24 percent. “To have double-digit growth across the country in two years is incredible,” Boggs notes.

“When you look at factors like workforce training, low cost, and quicker return on investment, those are major factors in driving demand,” says Roderick Nunn, vice chancellor for Workforce and Community Development at St. Louis Community College (Mo.). “The current demand is recognition of what we do well.” In this economy, higher education’s workhorse institutions are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

Given the resources available to community colleges, “I think they are rising to the challenge quite well,” says Beverly Bower, director of the Bill Priest Center for Community College Education at the University of North Texas, which offers career training for community college leaders. “They [community colleges] have a strong history of being flexible and accessible and being in touch with the needs of their local communities.”


Community colleges keep a finger on the local pulse through the use of advisory boards composed of area businesspeople who help shape programs, explains Spangler. If the programs at a community college aren’t strong, maybe the advisory board isn’t either, she suggests.

It helps to have a major employer in the area. Nunn’s SLCC developed a program with Boeing to train entry-level sheet metal workers. “We’ve had 125 individuals complete the training,” he says. “Boeing interviewed 112 and hired 98.”

Utilizing workforce intelligence, SLCC leaders seek out area employers with labor shortages, then pair instructional designers with the company to develop “pre-employment training” programs for students the company commits to interviewing. “We deliver on what employers need,” he says.

Responding is trickier when no major employers are in the area. Lane County in Oregon saw an unemployment rate of 15 percent, says Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College. A semiconductor plant closed and the county is “the center of the recreational vehicle industry,” she says. “Frankly, there aren’t new employers coming to town beyond micro-employers.”

Spilde says Lane has added a cohort of nursing students and medical office assistants, and the institution is beefing up its energy auditing programs. Preparing residents for future jobs when the economy does recover is also a focus through general and developmental education classes. “We’re telling them to train for a job, but also build critical thinking skills which will make them more employable,” she explains.

“Many students are piecing together a life on financial aid,” Spindle continues. Although some of the financial aid moneys are paid to the college through fees, books, and other education expenses, part of the money is also used to pay for rent and food. “That’s another economic impact that is overlooked,” she points out.

Leaders at Manor College (Pa.), a private two-year institution, are also aware of the benefit financial aid can bring to the local economy. Nine programs addressing workforce shortages have been approved for the state’s Commonwealth Workforce Development System, which provides stipends for full-time students. The program does not extend unemployment benefits, but it does alleviate the need for participants to seek immediate employment, explains Gus Distefano, director of admissions. “I do attendance sheets every Monday for CWDS participants.”

'The last thing you want to be doing is turning students away during a recession when they need the retraining.' -George Boggs, American Association of Community Colleges

As Spangler puts it, community colleges are “where the rubber and the road are meeting.” Her institution recently received a $4.2 million grant from the Department of Energy to train people in solar installation. Not only will the program prepare students for “green collar” jobs, but it is in line with the institution’s efforts as a signatory to the President’s Climate Commitment. They are seeking additional grant money to install solar panels on a campus parking structure for practical application.


Wider employment needs are being addressed through the “HCC Partners for Jobs” program, which pulls together a variety of local organizations to identify job opportunities in the area. A website and blog point residents toward programs at HCC and beyond.

Meanwhile, four-year institutions aren’t exactly slacking in the area of economic revitalization, says George Mehaffy, vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He points to the University of Washington, Tacoma, citing a new building in an abandoned warehouse area, leading to rehabilitation of the area. All sectors of higher ed are changing their perception of their role in the community to being a steward of place, he says. “Thirty years ago, if people had said the university should be concerned about economic recovery, some faculty would have fainted,” Mehaffy says. “But that has changed.”

After all, community colleges can’t work toward economic recovery all alone. “We’re asked to transform their lives at a third of the cost,” says Spilde. She points to research from the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education, which highlights the discrepancy in per-student spending. Like all higher ed institutions, community colleges have seen reductions in state funding, but they are starting from a lower point. “We’ve done all we can—we’ve cut the fat; there is nothing else to cut,” says Spilde.

“The last thing you want to be doing is turning students away during a recession when they need the retraining,” says Boggs. The well-publicized enrollment surges at colleges in California, Florida, and Michigan leading to students being closed out of classes provide evidence that this is already happening. “The colleges can only do so much,” he points out. “It costs money to hire faculty members.” The AACC is working on advocacy materials members can take to their state leaders.

More money isn’t the only answer. One strength of community colleges has always been their ability to quickly adapt to the changing needs of their communities. Paperwork slows down response time, says Spangler. “The fewer new regulations and unfunded mandates that are passed, the better for us.”

“We have to look at education across the whole spectrum,” adds Nunn. Poor performance at the elementary school level might eventually lead to the need for developmental classes at a community college. “We should make sure each level prepares learners for the next level of education and the workforce.”

A closer relationship with community colleges’ four-year counterparts, especially around articulation agreements, is also necessary. “The community college is the one that gets the blame when students realize credits won’t transfer,” says Bower. Part of the problem is a lack of respect for the education students receive at community colleges and more institutional level research is needed to show that transfer students can perform as well or better than native students, she suggests.

Articulation agreements are also needed because long-term economic recovery will require them. “As the economy recovers, the demand over the next several years for BA and higher degrees will be pretty robust,” says Tony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University (D.C.). According to CEW projections, there will be around 13 million job openings for people with certificates or AA degrees and 17 million for holders of a BA and higher from 2008 to 2018.

“When employers start hiring again, it will be across the entire economy,” says Tony Pals, director of public information for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. He highlights information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that 2009 unemployment rates among people who hold BA and higher degrees are lower than those with associate degrees. Although, AA holders have faired better than those without any college education. “For the nation’s economic well being, we need to increase the number of workers who complete some form of postsecondary study,” Pals says.

But to do that, four-year colleges and universities have to ensure the transfer pipelines are open, says Spilde. “As universities think about their own budget, they are trying to bring in out-of-state students since it means more revenue, but does that close out community college students?”

“I’m not happy to find out [that transfer agreements] are only as good as the last dean at the four-year,” Spangler says ruefully. She finds hope in the recent efforts of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which brokered an agreement on what competencies are needed to obtain a mechanical engineering degree. “It proves that it is possible to get an agreement on those basic requirements,” she says.

No one would appear to be in favor of heavy-handed legislations, but most in higher ed would agree that state mandates for common course numbering are usually needed to smooth the transfer process. “Addressing these issues institution by institution is not as powerful as getting them together,” says Mehaffy. Tennessee is the latest state to mandate common course numbering with legislation passed in January. There is also a requirement for community colleges to clearly identify which courses will not transfer to a university.

Attrition rates show that not every 18-year-old student is ready to attend college, which makes articulation agreements more important, asserts Bower. “If we really believe that they need these advanced degrees, then we shouldn’t be putting up roadblocks.”

One thing is clear: All levels of higher education will need to pull together to help the economy recover and prepare workers to keep it robust once it does.

What should the future look like? “I really think we need to see American higher education as unified and working toward common goals rather than competing with each other,” says Boggs.

After all, community college leaders are aware that the economic recovery goal doesn’t belong to just one sector of higher ed. “I don’t think we are any more superior to four-years than they are to us. We have different missions and that’s that,” says Nunn. “Community colleges don’t have the research missions to bring new technology to market, but research universities don’t do workforce training.”

“The increased attention currently being paid to community colleges definitely is not making four-year colleges obsolete,” says Debra Humphreys, vice president of communication and public affairs at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “We need to create ladders of opportunity for students to move up.”

Students need both immediate job skills as well as broader skills if they are to remain employable, Humphreys says. According to the AACU’s survey of 302 employers with at least 25 employees, “Raising the Bar: Employer’s Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn,” released in January, 91 percent of respondents said employees are taking on more responsibility and using broader skills than they have in the past.

All sectors of higher ed should focus on both teaching capacity and helping faculty teach better, suggests Humphreys. “A lot of community colleges don’t get credit for innovations in teaching. They hire people who are just focused on teaching,” she says.

“I think all of us have to pay more attention to retention and at what point we are losing them,” says Spilde. She thinks the smaller class sizes at many community colleges are a point in their favor.

As long as capacity and affordability are issues, there will be tension between the two sectors. “We have a race, class, and ethnicity issue,” warns Carnevale. “If this was a high school, there would be a court case.”

He could see a scenario in which demand for higher education causes community colleges to offer a third year of programming, because four-year institutions would resist expanding enrollment, since it would reduce their selectivity.

“I don’t want to see us imitate each other. We have different missions. But I want to see universities be more accommodating to community college students so they can get advanced degrees,” says Boggs.

However, he says the movement for community colleges to offer bachelor degrees will continue to expand as long as the need is there. “My prediction is that we’ll see more of it, and if universities are anxious they should be helping us develop more seamless transfer programs.” Of course the contributions both community colleges and universities ultimately make to economic recovery remains to be seen.