What Community Colleges Need From Philanthropy

To better serve students and meet workforce goals, community college leaders report upskilling needs that education funders can help support.
Blog Post
July 14, 2022

In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s The Edge, Senior Writer Goldie Blumenstyk asked readers to answer a heartening prompt for an often resource-constrained sector: What should education philanthropists fund next?

Not surprisingly, many readers responded – I was one of them.

One of the top suggestions for education philanthropists, and presumably, other higher education funders including federal and state government or corporate foundations, was expanded support for faculty development. My reasoning, which seemed to be shared by other Chronicle readers, resembled an upskilling argument in any workforce: If the job changes enough, incumbent employees need time and resources to gain new skills to perform the evolved job.

Graduate students, future faculty in many cases, are rarely formally taught how to teach and mentor, let alone successfully carry out tasks like leveraging using labor market information to inform program development, facilitating effective employer advisory board meetings, helping students navigate wraparound services offered by colleges and external organizations, or even teaching online.

Faculty who come from outside academia are also rarely equipped with this unique set of knowledge, skills, and abilities.

A natural response to the ever-growing pressures placed on college faculty is to fund more support staff at colleges who can take on these new tasks that are outside of the traditional faculty job description. That makes sense, and Chronicle readers suggested it in the context of educational navigators.

However, like all employers, colleges won't always be able to hire new staff to take on new roles, and even if they do, there are still certain skills that college faculty would benefit from gaining or refining to better support students in the 21st century. That's where education funders can help – and not just with upskilling faculty – but more broadly across institutions.

These challenges are particularly thorny for community colleges where resources are more limited than at four-year institutions. Through our New Models for Career Preparation project, we have been learning from colleges on the ground to determine what makes a community college well equipped to excel at workforce development?

A clear takeaway is that a college’s own workforce must have the right skills to meet the demands of a more competitive and complex education and training ecosystem. Our current system doesn’t easily lend itself to the upskilling in question.

That's why education funders, public and private, should help community colleges bring the “reskilling revolution” to their own workforce.

Colleges have shared four upskilling priorities:

Much like the ideas raised by readers of The Chronicle, our research and conversations with colleges pinpoint areas of opportunities for education funders to help drive institutional and field-level improvements, particularly at community colleges. Such investments would result in a short-term gain for colleges, their staff, and learners as well as long-term strategic positioning and capacity building for colleges that find themselves in an environment with more competitors.

  1. Upskilling needs for institutional research leaders: Labor market information from private providers and public sources can help colleges plan better offerings by complementing the direct feedback from a handful of existing employer partners with more comprehensive regional data. These data points can provide insights about projected job growth, expected wages, workforce demographics, a job’s automation susceptibility, possible career ladders, transferability of skills, and credential preferences among employers. Some states like California or Florida make labor market information freely available to colleges. The problem is that college institutional research staff, busy meeting compliance and reporting needs, report not having the time and resources to step back and learn how to use and, importantly, communicate the data to the college’s president, provost, and workforce leaders who are responsible for creating, modifying, and sunsetting program offerings with the college's employers and economic development partners.
  2. Upskilling needs for communications leaders: While the typical community college may not be able to compete with corporate online providers in terms of marketing budgets, they can help their communication staff use state-of-the-art techniques to market more effectively. The world of technology-enabled digital marketing is complex and fast-moving. Many professional certifications exist for communication professionals to stay current on best practices. With community college enrollment in persistent decline, colleges need to do more to persuade learners of all backgrounds to pick them over other educational providers. Whether it be website optimization, social listening, social media strategy, or workflow automation, busy communications professionals at community colleges could benefit from professional development. In fact, some education funders like the Lumina Foundation have already expanded grant offerings to help colleges with storytelling.
  3. Upskilling needs for college workforce leaders: Ironically, there typically isn’t a clear pathway to becoming a workforce development professional, especially not at a community college. While many college workforce leaders come into the role through related professions like economic or community development, there is always a need to learn more. College leaders report a need to better understand the sprawling network of federal workforce funding opportunities; navigating the often conflated definitions around credential, certification, and certificate or non-degree and non-credit; expanding the college's business model, for example, to support the innovation economy; strategizing government relations; fostering effective change management, and building out ways to know, measure, and communicate program outcomes data.
  4. Upskilling needs for career services leaders: Whereas institutional research and workforce staff help colleges improve program offerings across community colleges, career services staff work directly with students to get them into quality jobs. Career staff report needing support to understand the specific needs of the local labor market. Lorain County Community College is now offering “Local Econ 101” to their advising and career staff to connect students to in-demand jobs by helping their employees better understand regional economics.
  5. Upskilling needs college finance leaders: Financing quality workforce programs at community colleges is an enormous challenge, but there are unique techniques finance leaders can use to better plan and fund these programs and build better business models for the college. These techniques include “full cost” budgeting, often used in the non-profit sector but less often at community colleges, priority-based funding, and asset monetization techniques. Earlier this year, we produced a report and a technical assistance video dedicated to applying full-cost budgeting at community colleges. Additional resources focused on state financing strategies are coming. We have heard time and time again the value of upskilling for college finance staff to effectively support non-degree (non-credit and credit-bearing) workforce programs.

Upskilling for college leaders is an opportunity for funders and training providers.

With support from education funders, these upskilling needs could be met by enterprising professional or institutional-level membership associations, non-profits, or even companies. Professional development might take the form of new professional boot camps or credentials, seminars, conference tracks, technical assistance lines, or consulting arms for new or existing higher education entities.

Our research has indicated that while staff from 4-year institutions have robust national and regional peer and learning networks, staff at 2-year institutions make up a much smaller share of these groups and have unique unmet needs. Some college staff report membership in ad hoc or formal state-level peer networks for professional development, but the quality and availability of these networks vary greatly. Even in these regions, upskilling needs persist.

As community colleges do their best to educate and upskill the nation’s workforce, they could benefit from education philanthropy supporting to upskill their own. If you know of quality, scalable professional development programs for community college staff that address the needs described above, get in touch.

Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!

Shalin Jyotishi is a Senior Policy Analyst on Education and Labor at New America and a Fellow in AI with the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the World Economic Forum. Share your thougthts with Shalin on Twitter @ShalinJyotishi.

Related Topics
Workforce Development & CTE