Aug. 4, 2022
Like many community colleges, Houston’s Lone Star College system (LSC) manages to “be all things for all people” through equal emphasis on transfer and career-training coursework. In its non-degree workforce offerings, a review process that’s more familiar in academic programs helps ensure students get their money’s worth.
LSC uses a number of different strategies to ensure quality in its non-degree options, but what caught our attention when we visited this spring was the way the college system selected new programs. Unless they’re directly paid for by employers contracting with LSC’s Corporate College, any proposed non-degree offerings must go through a nine-step Workforce Program Development Process before they’re launched. A 50-person Workforce Council reviews the labor market justification for new programs, consults with subject-matter experts in industry, and conducts a financial feasibility assessment before any new program can be considered by the system’s executive leadership and campus presidents. Only once the Workforce and Executive Councils sign off does a new program head to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for state approval.
Although the program development process requires a lot of meetings and deliberation, for a system like Lone Star College, it’s a good way to ensure that individual programs work for students and fit into the college’s broader mission. The Workforce Council includes not only administrative staff but also a wide variety of academic faculty, who attend meetings even when the program under discussion isn’t their specialty. “It’s the best now that it’s ever been,” said Renee Pruitt, the departmental chair of the physical therapist assistant program: “it’s a real system committee.” When an expensive new program for professional pilots was proposed, Pruitt recounted, she and other faculty were skeptical. Would it be worth students’ money? With time to review the relevant labor market intelligence, and to hear from regional employers who were interested in hiring graduates, she saw the program’s value and came onboard.
The Workforce Program Development Process isn’t just relevant for new programs: existing programs, even some of LSC’s best established workforce offerings, get a second look. Dr. Archie Blanson, president of Lone Star’s North Harris campus, and Dr. Michael Burns, the campus’s VP of instruction, described how they revamped their popular HVAC certificate program into a stackable format that focuses on basic occupational readiness first, before progressing to more advanced residential and commercial topics, then optionally into degree-focused academic coursework. Once students are set up with a steady, well-paid job, Drs. Blanson and Burns have found, they’re better prepared to take on their general education requirements in an associate degree program. Workforce programs need to move quickly, Dr. Blanson told us, but “we don’t do things in a hodge-podge way. We need to know we’re going to have a process that works for students at the end.”
Careful vetting and continuous program review support a common objective we heard about in our visits with different campus leaders across the Lone Star College system: providing a welcoming environment for first generation college students, especially undocumented residents and members of Spanish-speaking communities. Dr. Melissa Gonzalez, president of the healthcare-focused Kingwood campus, told us that many prospective students still only associate community colleges with their academic mission—transfer-oriented coursework in literature, government, and history, for example—and may miss the full breadth of LSC’s options. “It weighs a lot on me,” she said, “it’s our job to ensure that our community understands all the programming we have.” Dr. Burns, the North Harris campus’s head of instruction, sees quality workforce programs as a way to help students reconceptualize a college experience that many feel wasn’t made for them. “We hear a lot of students say, ‘I’m not ready for college.’ We tell them, ‘That's OK.’”
Lone Star College’s sophisticated program evaluation and planning processes aren’t the only reason for the workforce division’s success, of course. A large and hardworking financial analysis and planning team makes sure that each of LSC’s seven campuses are plugged into the right funding opportunities. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey spurred LSC to invest in online education, keeping later pandemic enrollment effects minimal: the system only lost about five percent of its headcount between fall 2019 and fall 2021, compared to 13 percent at public two-year colleges nationally. Regional economic conditions play an important part in LSC’s success and relative stability, too. Houston is home to lucrative petrochemical and shipping industries, providing plenty of job training opportunities for Lone Star’s 75,000-strong student body, the seventh largest in the country according to the most recent Education Department data.
Not all community colleges are blessed with Houston’s economic dynamism or LSC’s size, but any workforce department can use LSC’s academic-style program review to support the success of career-focused students.