Community colleges have long been the academic workhorses of economic growth and job mobility. Unfortunately, many of these institutions still follow decades-old education and training practices that don’t align with current workforce demands. So, what needs to happen?
Today’s community colleges need to focus less on transferring students to four-year colleges and more on competency-based career programming. Colleges need new learning models that are more affordable, flexible, and occupationally focused so that traditional and non-traditional students can remain relevant in an ever-evolving workforce.
According to Inside Higher Education, skills-based, online credentials tied to careers are growing in popularity, namely among adult learners from lower-income backgrounds. Not to mention, countless Americans, especially those hit the hardest by the pandemic, don’t have the time or money to earn a college degree.
As a result, community colleges must lean into the challenge that is the demand-driven credentialing marketplace. They must also let go of the artificial construct of time and allow students to learn when it’s convenient for them.
A 2019 Lumina Foundation report noted that more and more two-year colleges will be called on to implement new credentialing programs—despite having limited time and resources. And if they fail to do so, they risk being left in the dark as disruptive innovations take the spotlight.
However, a recent American Council on Education report noted the degree to which community colleges can help with workforce education depends on the degree to which they can operate nimbly, foster close partnerships with local employers, and use their primary delivery methods to meet evolving needs of communities.
One of the best ways community colleges can drive economic growth is by collaborating with local employers on non-credit programs. But the partnership between these two entities must go beyond casual conversations at local job fairs. Colleges and companies need to be in the trenches together, developing a mutually beneficial strategy that ensures students get the skills and credentials they need to transition into the local labor market.
While these relationships are tough to build and entail trial and error, everyone involved stands to benefit in less time. After all, it can take years to launch a credit-bearing program because of all the red tape. Introducing a non-credit program only takes a matter of months if everyone is on the same page. And in the end, colleges can increase enrollment, businesses can decrease skills gaps, and students can have a better quality of life.
According to the American Council on Education, non-credit education is probably the least understood segment in the community college realm. However, this type of education is the most adaptable from the college perspective, the most flexible from the student perspective, and the most responsive from the employer perspective.
Lifelong Learning Opportunities
By making stackable credentials part of their offerings, community colleges open the door to lifelong learners. These credentials allow working students to balance their education with job schedules, family needs, and financial resources. Learners can earn short-term, industry-validated credentials one at a time.
However, for students and employers to best benefit from this learning approach, community colleges must translate and link these credentials to conventional academic degrees. For example, learners should be able to seamlessly earn one credential after another, turn those credentials into certificates, and then turn those certificates into an associate degree. While technical and political obstacles can sometimes make this a difficult process, it’s essential to modern career education.
For those colleges that are worried about credentials replacing credit-bearing certificates and degrees, they won’t. Most students view them as steppingstones to an academic award.
According to Strada research released in July 2021, two in five Americans hold a non-degree credential, which tends to be more valuable when combined with an associate degree. Furthermore, 69% of non-degree credential holders with an associate degree said their education was worth the cost, compared to the 48% of individuals who only hold an associate degree.
Online Career-Building Courses
In addition to making non-credit competency-based programming and short-term skills-based credentials a reality, community colleges need to go a step further and make their career center services easier to access. After all, working learners probably don’t have time to meet with a career counselor during regular office hours. Instead, colleges should provide students with online options for career exploration, resume preparation, networking opportunities, and interview coaching.
Developing creative program offerings that serve a broader range of adult learners—and tying those offerings to clear labor market outcomes—can help community colleges stand out in what’s quickly becoming an increasingly crowded marketplace. And 180 Skills is here to help.
Community colleges across the country use our online skills training platform to quickly transition from curricula-based programming to skills-based, career-aligned programming.
We offer nearly 800 skills courses that span four broad categories—Workplace & Soft Skills, Risk Management & Compliance Skills, Technical Skills, Quality & Continuous Improvement Skills—and 13 industry-recognized certifications. Contact us today to see if our turnkey skills training solution is a good fit for your college.