Four things community college leaders should know to maximize their workforce edge

A recent white paper from the Project on Workforce at Harvard University sheds light on the challenges and opportunities of education-to-employment that reveals insights for community college leaders.
Blog Post
Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images
Sept. 21, 2021

In the wake of COVID-19, survey data indicated that adult workers had growing skepticism about the role of education in landing a good job. It’s shown up in America’s community colleges. National enrollments declined in 2020-2021, contrasting sharply with past recessions.

Working to Learn, a recent white paper from Harvard University’s Project on Workforce brings new data to the forefront for college leaders weighing next steps. The researchers studied applicants to New Profit’s Postsecondary Innovation for Equity (PIE) Initiative to better understand the landscape of social entrepreneurs working at the intersection of education and careers.

Many of these programs pose potential alternatives to traditional higher education - thus community colleges are well-served to pay mind to these findings.

The PIE initiative launched in 2019 as an open application process for funding and capacity building targeting self-identified “innovators” in postsecondary education and employment. The corresponding dataset featured in Working to Learn is diverse, ranging from small startups and social enterprises to well-established non-profits and community-based organizations. PIE winners can be found here.

The PIE organizations tend to be smaller than community colleges—the median applicant had annual revenues of around $2.5 million and served 525 learners.

But the field appears to be young and expanding. Over half of organizations applying to PIE were formed in the decade prior and 25 percent in the last five years. More than 80 percent were growing in learners served year-to-year, and learners were increasing faster than expenses.

That growth is just one reason why it makes sense for community college leaders to take note. Here are four key takeaways from Working to Learn for community colleges seeking to attract and retain students seeking workforce training.

1) Community colleges may have untapped fundraising potential to support their workforce mission.

The Harvard research underscores that the business model for workforce development remains challenging. Organizations outside the community college sector are heavily subsidized by philanthropy. The median organization in New Profit’s applicant pool expected 60 percent of their annual revenue to come from philanthropy, and one-quarter expected philanthropy to cover over 90 percent of their revenue. These non-profits and social enterprises also appeared to struggle to access public funding sources, posing questions about sustainability and scaling capacity. However, their financing stands in stark contrast to traditional community college funding models, which may underutilize philanthropic funding. Notwithstanding MacKenzie Scott’s recent and unprecedented $429 million investment in 20+ community colleges, two-year institutions have traditionally relied on state funding, student tuition, and struggled to draw attention from large donors. However, the paper shows that employment-focused programs appear to be attractive destinations for philanthropic capital, especially for family and corporate foundations. Community college leaders may look to these sources as they look to fund and expand workforce programs. Included below is a breakdown of large funders that community college leaders could explore.

2) Community college programs can stand out by emphasizing quality employer relationships and wraparound services.

Even in a grant competition focused on connecting postsecondary education and employment, many early-stage ventures and community-based organizations did not prioritize connecting with businesses. Only about one-third of the organizations applying for funding mentioned that they were working directly with employers. And just 13 percent of applicants emphasized providing wraparound supports to learners, like stipends or housing support. Community colleges are well-placed to bridge the worlds of education and work and invest in the full education-to-employment lifecycle, from supporting basic needs to providing job placement with employers. When done well, these relationships can be a competitive advantage with both students and employers

3) Almost all workforce training providers need to better balance job-specific and foundational skills.

The Harvard research highlights that too few workforce organizations are prioritizing the “soft skills” or 21st-century skills needed for the future of work. Less than nine percent of applicants emphasized providing both foundational career skills, like adaptability, resilience, and communication, while also building technical “hard” skills for particular occupations and job roles. These challenges, however, are often mirrored in community college settings. Many students enrolled in transfer-oriented degrees lack sufficient exposure to professional skills that translate into specific career pathways. Career and technical education courses often underemphasize the soft skills needed to help workers make successful transitions in the wake of structural changes in the economy and technological advances. However, exemplar programs show that this choice doesn’t have to be an either-or. PIE winners like and Propel America are helping learners build hard and soft skills simultaneously through hands-on approaches and applied learning opportunities. On the college side, the non-profit Braven is bringing for-credit career accelerator programs to campuses to help first-generation students access networks, mentoring, and career skills to access good jobs post-graduation. Colleges should invest in pedagogy and partnerships that help students acquire both hard and soft skills.

4) Both community colleges and non-profits should prioritize tracking the quality of jobs that graduates secure

Working to Learn highlights that although many alternative training providers aspire to achieve upward mobility for participants, few are able to track long-term progress towards this goal. While nearly half of the programs said they were prioritizing at least some kind of labor market outcome, the most common metric on employment (27 percent of applicants) was the employment rate. Less than three percent of programs were tracking the long-term success of their learners in the labor market. In fact, when community colleges can leverage strong relationships with state government entities and local economic development organizations, consortia with other institutions, and longitudinal data systems, they are often better positioned than small social enterprises to track a student’s economic outcomes. However, outcomes vary substantially depending on school and field of study and there are still too many workforce-oriented non-degree programs at community colleges that lead to unemployment, poverty wages, and insecure jobs. If colleges are able to demonstrate and communicate that their programs lead to living wage jobs, it will position them well to attract and retain students looking for better economic opportunities.

With community college enrollment down, employers clamoring for talent, and individuals seeking to get the best possible employment opportunities in the post-pandemic labor market, now more than ever creative thinking around workforce strategies is needed.

The Working to Learn findings indicate that community colleges have a big opportunity to focus on the ideas highlighted above, stand out from the competition, and win students back.

Rachel Lipson is the inaugural Project Director of the Project on Workforce at Harvard University's Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. Follow Rachel on Twitter @Rachel_Lipson

Shalin Jyotishi is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Center on Education and Labor at New America (CELNA) and a Visiting Scholar at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Follow Shalin on Twitter @ShalinJyotishi.

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