Strong Community College Partnerships Can Be a Win-Win for Students and Employers

Stop me if you’ve heard this before…

Business leaders say they can’t find the qualified candidates they need to fill the available jobs in their communities.

College leaders say the students who walk through their doors aren’t prepared to succeed in college, let alone enter the workforce.

I don’t know about you, but I constantly hear this refrain at conferences, in articles, and talking to both business and higher ed leaders across the country. And while there is truth to it, we would all do well to do more than simply admire the problem. It is past time to focus that energy on solutions and how communities are addressing the issue.

That was the spirit of the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) Annual Leadership Congress I visited last week in New York. Community college leaders from across the country came together to exchange ideas and successful approaches to support students. They certainly didn’t need any further reminders of the problems they are working to solve. They know the numbers:

More than a third of community college students quit by the end of their first year.

Fewer than one out of five students at community colleges earn their desired degree in three years or less.

But they also know that as community colleges, they occupy a critical role in our education system and in our nation’s present and future. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, two out of three jobs require at least some education or training beyond high school. Community colleges and certificate programs can lead to a “middle skills pathway” — jobs like technicians, computer control programmers and operators, and firefighters — which employ 16 million workers in the United States. As this pathway continues to grow, we must adequately prepare students for success to ensure our country has the qualified workers that the economy will continue to demand.

To meet that demand, community colleges and other higher ed institutions need to be thinking differently. They need to be radically focused on student success. That means for every aspect of the operation, to be looking through the lens of students to see what will help them succeed, and particularly those students who tend to encounter the most hurdles to completing post-high school education — low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults, who make up the new majority of today’s college students.

Successful community colleges deeply understand both the needs of their students and the needs of their local economy. And they are willing to rethink how they work — everything from academics to student services — to meet the needs of both. Often, that means pairing a radical focus on student success with creative partnerships.

Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, has strong partnerships with employers in the two fastest-growing industries in Dayton — drone manufacturing and healthcare — and developed strong aerial system and nursing programs so that their graduates have the skills to fill the jobs available right in their own back yard.

At the same time, Sinclair also invests in data to identify where and when they were losing students, and using those data to improve their ability to respond to those barriers students encountered. In just four years, Sinclair saw a 75 percent increase in the number of students who earned degrees or certificates or transferred to a four-year institution.

I had the opportunity to meet with students at Chattanooga State Community College last year.

Community colleges are also demonstrating the benefits of closer collaboration with their K-12 partners, making sure students don’t fall off track learning in college what they should have already learned in high school. Chattanooga State Community College piloted a program — the Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS) — to provide high school seniors who struggled in math with extra support via online and face-to-face instruction that aligned to college-bound expectations while still in high school.

In the first year, of the 200 students connected to Chattanooga State, 83 percent met all five competencies while still in high school. And a quarter of the students went on to earn college credit in their second semester of senior year. The program has since spread to 118 high schools statewide and all 13 of Tennessee’s community colleges.

Colleges can also gain a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise by partnering with each other. One of the Gates Foundation’s earliest investments in partnering institutions was an initiative called Completion By Design. Nine community colleges in three states set goals around indicators of degree completion or transfer and committed to fundamental structural changes to academic and student support services.

They made sure advisors had the tools to deliver individual paths for students — to ease their route to a credential, a transfer, or a two or four-year degree. They focused on using data to help administrators more easily identify where they were losing students and where they saw momentum for students in their journeys through college. The approach also helped faculty pinpoint challenges their specific students were facing — both academic and life-related.

Together, these colleges met all their near-term targets three years early. They delivered double-digit percentage increases in gateway math and English courses, first-term credits and first-year credits. Moreover, they used somewhat modest investments to build a broader vision for change beyond the work supported through their grant.

The results of the Completion by Design colleges’ collective efforts show the potential for institutional partnerships to make substantial impact. And as a foundation, we learned a lot through that work about what it means to partner with an institution. Those lessons continue to inform our partnerships with colleges and universities today. True partnership means looking honestly at how your students are doing, and assessing — in public, together — what is and isn’t working.

With growing pressure to ensure more students succeed and against backdrops of resource constraints, partnerships are affordable approaches for most community colleges. The challenge in establishing successful partnerships is in breaking through inertia to put these approaches in place. Once community colleges commit to tackling institutional change together — and with their K-12, 4-year and business counterparts — they can transform how campuses and systems operate with intentional, collective action. And that would be a real win-win for both students and employers.