How Community Colleges Can Help America Recover from COVID-19

The federal government should increase funding to community colleges to help America recover from COVID-19.
Blog Post
April 22, 2020

Over the last two years, the Center for Education and Skills for New America (CESNA) has studied federal investments in higher education and workforce training dedicated to pulling the country out of the Great Recession. Our CESNA team zeroed in on President Obama’s Trade Adjustment Act Community College Career Training (TAACCCT) grant to understand the impact of this unprecedented $1.9 billion on community colleges. Little did we know how important this work would be when we began it two years ago.

With time on my hands while sheltering in place, I am contemplating what community colleges should do to help their communities recover from COVID-19. Given their recent experience with TAACCCT and foundational commitment to serving local residents, I wonder what strategies community colleges can deploy to address the critical needs around them. Given the weight that racially minoritized and low-income populations are shouldering during COVID-19, I am considering what community colleges can do to assist these Americans who are experiencing the greatest need.

Community colleges have a footprint in every state, Washington DC, and most territories, providing access to higher education for individuals who never considered college an option or lack the financial resources to attend. They have a longer history than many people realize. Junior colleges took root in the early 20th century; played an important role in World War II, which prompted the Truman Commission to dub them “community” colleges; and grew into a national movement following the War on Poverty. Since then, they have played an increasingly important role in the educational infrastructure of the U.S., exemplified by their contribution to America’s recovery from the Great Recession.

With about 1,000 campuses nationwide, community colleges are a resource and stabilizing force in the everyday life of millions of Americans. Especially in rural areas and small towns, community colleges fill gaps in higher education. But all community colleges pay close attention to the needs of their students and deliver a wide range of programs and services to meet their needs. This is a major reason why the federal government chose community colleges to implement the TAACCCT grants, and why they are well positioned to serve America now.

TAACCCT funded workforce training programs in industry sectors hit hard by the Great Recession, with many of those same sectors facing adversity again now in COVID-19. TAACCCT enrolled over a half million students, with the largest numbers in healthcare and manufacturing. The graduates of TAACCCT programs were successful. A meta-analysis conducted by CESNA and my company, Bragg & Associates, showed TAACCCT participants were twice as likely to finish programs and earn a credential, and nearly 30 percent more likely to obtain a job or wage increase than comparison students. In this time of crisis, community colleges stand ready to train the nurses, radiological technicians, respiratory therapists, EMTs, paramedics, and many others who work on the front lines to fight COVID-19. They are also ready to apply lessons learned from TAACCCT to train employees in other sectors adversely impacted by COVID-19, including business, retail, travel, tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, and many more.

Just before social distancing restrictions shut down business as usual, CESNA published Blueprint for a Federal Investment in Community Colleges, which strongly recommends a new $2 billion investment. Our blueprint uses TAACCCT as the model for ensuring strategic investments to help train workers across sectors that are considered essential during and after COVID-19. Investment in accelerated programs, online instruction coupled to holistic student supports, career pathway-embedded credentials, and work-based learning for credit that equips students to learn while working can help position community college graduates to meet local workforce needs.

Once again, community colleges can help address a national unemployment crisis, which has reached over 22 million so far. The experience these colleges gained through TAACCCT is priceless, but they can do more to help the nation address this crisis. Community colleges are well positioned to tackle other needs emerging in their communities. They can marshal their full capacity as comprehensive educational providers to inform communities about the rapidly moving developments associated with the spread of the coronavirus. They can serve as hubs to distribute accurate and timely information about educational, economic, and civic opportunities in this time of COVID-19. They can partner with other social service providers to help ensure persons hardest hit by the pandemic have what they need to not only survive the virus but to thrive later.

This vision of community colleges serving local needs is as crucial today as it was in the late 1960s, when community colleges were built across this country at a rate of one per week. Leaders at that time advocated for higher education to be more accessible and affordable, positioning community colleges to help improve the well-being of Americans. Community colleges have delivered on this promise. With federal funding modeled after TAACCCT, community colleges can do even more. They can help put the unemployed back to work, and they can continue their legacy of strengthening communities. In this time of crisis, the federal government should increase funding to community colleges again to help America recover from COVID-19.

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