Why community colleges are a key part of upward mobility and job recovery

These schools are uniquely positioned to respond to the post-pandemic economy and partner with businesses to train the workforce of the future.

By Charlotte West — April 6, 2021

When Chelsea Anorma graduated from high school in 2009, she enrolled at Saddleback College, a community college in Southern California. It was there that she took her first class in chemistry. “I remember being enthralled by learning how the world worked and seeing fascinating chemistry demonstrations and experiments,” she said. “I immediately decided to major in chemistry.” 

That set the tone for the rest of her educational career. She completed her associate’s degree and transferred to the University of California, Irvine. In spring 2020, she defended her doctoral dissertation in the chemistry program at the University of Illinois. “Saddleback is where I fell in love with science, thanks to some awesome professors who helped me not only in class but to get internships and scholarships so that I could transfer,” she said.

Anorma is just one of millions of students who start their education at one of the nearly 1,200 community colleges in the United States. In fact, 41% of all undergraduate students in the United States attend community college, which costs, on average, roughly half of what public four-year universities charge. Many of these undergraduates are underrepresented students, including the majority of all first-year minority students; students who are older than 25; low-income students; and part-time students. These schools are an affordable stepping-stone to further education and, importantly, an on-ramp to jobs that provide a living wage. 

According to Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, community colleges provide important lower division education and advice for younger students on transferring and earning bachelor’s degrees. And they are poised to play an important role in offering the education and training necessary for the post pandemic recovery. “Community colleges will…provide short-term training to help unemployed workers get back in the workplace,” says Jenkins.

Filling a need

Since last March, more than 14 million people have filed for unemployment. The majority of those who dropped out of the labor market made less than $40,000 a year. Most job losses were in the service sector, followed by education and health services, with an overall unemployment rate of 6.7% at the end of 2020. The recession has negatively affected enrollment at community colleges, which normally goes up during an economic downturn as people seek new credentials and skills. That has not held true during the pandemic. 

For fall 2020, while overall undergraduate enrollment was down around 3.6%, community colleges saw a drop of 10%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The decline was particularly steep among first-time community college students, at 21% overall, with enrollment of first-time Black, Hispanic, and Native American students falling by nearly 30%.

Red Rocks Community College's Lakewood Campus Recreation Center in Colorado.

Red Rocks Community College

41% of all undergraduate students in the United States attend community college.

Community colleges have responded by rapidly pivoting to online education, and while many colleges have provided stipends or technology loan programs, the pandemic has brought into sharp relief the digital divide and how it is impeding access to education. The schools are also providing comprehensive student support services, and working with businesses to develop curricula and training programs that will prepare students to work in the post-pandemic economy. 

Community colleges are often in a unique position to respond to local employment demands due to their close relationship with industry. At Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colorado, faculty in the STEM disciplines have been paying close attention to the demands of local employers. 

Educators at Red Rocks are focusing on making sure STEM students are prepared for the jobs of the future as they move into the workforce. “We’re looking at data science, aerospace, aerospace tech, and computer science as real growth areas in terms of where jobs are in Colorado,” says Barbara Sobhani, interim dean of instruction over STEM. “We need to be ready to provide the skills that the students need to fill those jobs.” 

The STEM faculty have also found ways to keep students engaged in both hands-on and virtual learning. The college has introduced an appointment system for students to access its “maker space,” where they can work on hands-on engineering projects in small groups or use equipment such as 3D printers, says Sobhani. 

Many jobs most in demand by employers and which pay a living wage require at least an associate’s degree. “Community colleges’ greatest impact on recovery will be in applied associate degree programs and applied baccalaureate programs in healthcare, engineering tech, protective services, ag tech, and other fields,” says Jenkins. 

Santa Barbara City College's West Campus Center showing students learning during sunset in California.

Santa Barbara City College

51% of community college students are racial minorities, as opposed to 42% of four-year college students.

Companies like HP have moved to invest in community colleges. Jeff Chen, head of research partnerships at HP Worldwide Education, says that HP began focusing on community colleges in late 2020. “What drew us to community colleges is that ... in past crises colleges have played a very important role in economic recovery,” Chen says. “So we are very interested in business opportunities in this area, as well as the opportunity for us to help a large percentage of college-age students, including adult learners, through our engagements with colleges.”

HP is helping community colleges plan curricula and certificates that are meaningful to employers who want to fill open positions in the next nine-to-18 months. The company has also begun discussions with Red Rocks to help the college develop internship programs to provide students with industry experience in cybersecurity and data science, as well as network with HP customers.

Jobs of the future

Analysts predict decreasing demand for jobs that can be automated in fields such as data entry, accounting, factory work, mechanics, and business services in the next five years, but those job losses will be counterbalanced by growth in data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning, process automation, business development, and information security, according to the World Economic Forum. Analysts expect rapid job growth if the vaccines are effective in curbing the pandemic, with an expected unemployment rate of 5.3% by the end of 2021, according to Goldman Sachs, down from 14.8% when losses peaked in April 2020.

SUNY Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh, New York.

SUNY Clinton Community College

The cost of a community college is 51% less than public-four-year universities.

More than half of jobs require training beyond high school but not a four-year college degree, according to the nonprofit National Skills Coalition. That’s an area where community colleges will likely play an important role. Red Rocks is expecting to see an enrollment boost as the economy begins to reopen and people start to pursue educational opportunities. The college is finding ways to accommodate adult learners seeking new skills and credentials. “We’re predicting a larger number of students coming to us who are trying to upskill, so we’re planning to offer more of our coursework in the evening than we have in the past to see if we can stay ahead of that need,” Sobhani says. In addition, they are developing short-term certificate programs in areas such as data and computer science, and a new course in machine learning.

To help people experiencing unemployment re-enter an economy reshaped by the pandemic, state governments have recognized the value in supporting community colleges and their students. In July, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) teamed up with the National Governors Association to launch a new initiative, the Reskilling and Recovery Network, to provide workers with training they need to gain the skills necessary to succeed in the post-pandemic workforce. Twenty states have joined the network.

HP has also launched a partnership with a grants consultancy that helps community colleges find funding opportunities, and has become a corporate sponsor of AACC. “In our conversations with community colleges, they are very excited about planning career pathways and building programs to help students, as they foresee a future where students are able to come back to reskill and upskill to participate in economic recovery,” Chen says. 

As for Anorma, she is now back in California doing a postdoctoral fellowship at UCI and teaching a class at her alma mater. “I always bring up my story at the beginning of class,” she said. “It's really great to be able to tell students that I was in their shoes before, and they can make it and succeed.”


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