January 27, 2021
 2:00-3:00 ET

How is the pandemic affecting community colleges and the students they serve? Will declining enrollment trends continue? Why are enrollments down while students give community colleges high marks? Will students delay graduation? How prepared do they feel to transition from education to career? This week Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights focuses on student perspectives about community college and how colleges can prepare students and themselves for what’s next.

Webinar Transcript

Moderator: Paul Fain, senior fellow, Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights

Presenter: Nicole Torpey-Saboe, director of research, Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights

Panelists: Joe Garcia, Chancellor of Colorado Community College System

Thomas Brock, Director of Community College Research Center, Columbia University


Paul Fain: Hello everybody, welcome to the webinar: the Road Ahead for Community Colleges- Examining Enrollment, Completion, Purpose and Value. 

Thanks to you all for joining, and welcome. I’m Paul Fain, a senior fellow with the Strada Education Network Center for Consumer Insights. Until last month, I was a news editor at Inside Higher Ed, where I oversaw our coverage of community colleges. The big story in higher education, right now, is the steep enrollment decline that’s being felt across much of the two-year sector, which includes a 21 percent national decline among first-year students.

The biggest drops have been among the most vulnerable groups of students, Black and Latino students and graduates of low-income high schools whose families have been hit hardest by the pandemic and the recession. Strada’s Public Viewpoint survey has some new findings we’re going to discuss today on what’s driving this crisis. An eye toward how community colleges can build on what they do best for students in society, on the whole.

Nichole Torpey-Saboe, Strada’s Director of Research and Consumer Insights, will walk us through those findings in just a minute.Then we’ll turn to two experts to help us make sense of the findings and what to watch going forward. Joining us will be Thomas Brock, the Director of the Community College Research Center (CRCC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Dr. Brock is a research professor at Teachers College as well.  He also previously was the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Research at the US Education Department’s Institute of Educational Sciences.

We’ll also have Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, which serves about 137,000 students across 13 colleges and 40 locations around the state. Chancellor Garcia is the former president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. He’s also formerly served as lieutenant governor of Colorado and was executive director of the state’s Department of Higher Education. We’re excited to have both of them here for this presentation. 

Shortly after Nichole speaks, We’ll have a moderated discussion with Chancellor Garcia and Dr. Brock. I’ll leave some time at the end for questions from all of you. The Public Viewpoint website has a lot more to check out besides what we’re going to be presenting today in terms of data and other survey findings to explore. 

So without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Nicole.

Nichole Torpey-Saboe: All right. Thank you so much, Paul, and thank you to everyone for joining us today. We’re really excited and grateful for Chancellor Garcia and Dr. Brock to be with us today as well. So, we’re going to be looking at some key questions around community colleges, and these questions have to do with enrollment. We’ve all seen those steep declines in enrollment and we’re going to try to understand a little bit more about why.

Then, we’ll also hear from current students about how they think that COVID might impact their completion rates and how community colleges are supporting them — and helping to connect their education to a future career and what they find valuable in their community college education.

The first thing we’re going to take a look at is a real paradox that we’ve seen in the data. This is something that’s been concerning to Strada. We’ve seen this across a number of our different survey instruments. What we’re seeing is a real gap between the perceptions about the value of education and the actual reality and experience of the value of education. First of all, we’ll take a look at some labor market statistics.

This is from Georgetown Center for Education, the workforce that during this time of the economic recession caused by COVID. Job losses have been really unequal by education level. So you can see those with bachelor’s degrees or higher, that blue line, or community college, associate degrees with the orange line, they have been cushioned somewhat compared to those with only a high school education or less. 

We know it’s been difficult for everyone, but really education has softened the blow of this economic recession. At the same time, even though we know that on average that’s the reality, that’s not the kind of confidence that we’re seeing when we do our surveys. So, when we ask people without degrees about whether they’re worth the cost, we see here that only about a third of people without degrees say that getting an associate degree would be worth the cost, or getting a bachelor’s degree is worth the cost.

It’s a very different picture when you look at those alumni. People who have an associate degree or people who have a bachelor’s degree feel pretty strongly that their education was worth the cost. But you see that skepticism among people who don’t have degrees. The other thing, not only do we see that level of skepticism, we’ve also seen it growing over time. This is just within 2020, comparing the spring to the fall. We did a survey wave in partnership with the Gallup organization, so we did two waves of a national representative survey. 

In the spring, we saw about 12 percent of people, they said that additional education would not help them get a job in times of economic uncertainty. By fall, that October through December wave, it’s up to 35 percent. It’s tripled, the number of people who are skeptical that education is going to help them get a job in economic uncertainty. On average, that has been true, but that’s not the perception.

We also see a number of different challenges that people say when we asked them about pursuing education and training. So, the biggest challenge we’ve seen is cost. This is something that’s always been a challenge but, I think, even exacerbated during these times of COVID, as we saw before. 

People with a high school education or less are more likely to have lost their jobs or had lower income. So they’ve been hit harder by the economic recession and in many ways hit harder by the pandemic. Cost, which was always an issue, is even more of an issue now. Balancing school with other responsibilities, there’s caretaking responsibilities, or for those who are still working, trying to fit that in and also just a level of personal self-confidence. 

We’ve seen that that third-highest reason that people say would be extremely or very challenging is fear that they won’t be able to succeed in school. That again has been something that we’ve seen pretty persistently so that there’s a range of factors, both, you know, real hard economic barriers, logistical barriers, and also kind of intangible self-confidence barriers as well.

Unfortunately, this has led to what we’re all too familiar with — just this dramatic drop in falling moment in particular at community colleges. And four-year colleges were down overall, but nothing compared to what we saw for community colleges. For freshmen and then even more so for immediate enrollment from low-income high schools, you see that 37 percent decline in enrollment. These are people who are considering enrolling and we’ve seen some of the skepticism and some of the barriers that they face. 

The next thing we wanted to take a look at was talking to currently enrolled students. So first, I’m going to go through the negative and then we will get to some of the more promising and positive news as well. On the downside, we see that currently enrolled students are facing the same barriers. We see cost, you know, more than 50 percent of them say that paying for tuition and books and other costs has been a challenge and a struggle for them this fall. 

This is a lot higher than what we saw for students enrolled at four-year universities, which we did a webinar on last fall. Overall,the biggest challenge that we see is that stress and anxiety, so emotional well-being is kind of the biggest barrier and challenge that students are facing. Along with that, we see that about 1 in 5 community college students say they expect to delay their graduation due to COVID-19. It’s even higher if you’re looking at those who aren’t sure, you know, then you get up to 44 percent, but it’s a pretty significant percentage of students who say that COVID has made them have to change their graduation date.

That’s all of the kind of sobering news that we’re used to. I would like to turn into some really encouraging findings that we also found through our data and some things I think that other sectors can really learn from community colleges. The first is just asking students about how well community colleges are preparing them to take that next step for careers. What we found is that community college students are pretty positive about this — even much more so than students enrolled at four-year colleges and universities. So you can see, we asked students how they would rate their colleges’ support for helping connect their education to a meaningful career. 47 percent of community college students said that that support was excellent or very good. This is higher than the four year institutions. When we asked about support from faculty, we asked how comfortable, are you asking a professor for career advice or connections? Community colleges come out very strong there.

Almost 50 percent of students say they’re very comfortable, or at least somewhat comfortable in asking a professor for career advice or connections.You know, obviously you’d love it to be everyone but it’s strong compared to four year colleges and universities, so I think there’s something to be learned from what community colleges are doing in this regard.

The final aspect I just wanted to point out is that we see a link between the strength of supporting connections to career and then the value that students see in that education. You know at the beginning, we talked about value and skepticism. Well, for currently enrolled students, you can see 73 percent of currently enrolled students at community colleges say that their education will be worth the cost.

They feel that confidence, people who are enrolled see those connections and they feel   that their education is going to be worth it. And again it’s quite a bit stronger than students who are enrolled at four year colleges and universities. We see the linkage between those two factors so, for example, students who say that their community college is very good or excellent in connecting them to meaningful careers are three times more likely to strongly agree their education will be worth the cost. 

That was kind of the big takeaway we had. We need to be concerned about this growing skepticism that education is going to be worth it. We’ve seen that grow even over the course of 2020. We need to be concerned about the barriers that students and potential students are facing, because these are things that were challenges before- it’s been exacerbated during the pandemic.

One possible solution or bright spot that we can point to is that when students see this connection to a meaningful career, then they see the value. That’s something really promising and something that you know any part of higher education can learn from what we’re seeing in some of these community colleges.

I will leave it there for our data presentation and then turn it back over to Paul who can start our discussion. 

Paul Fain: Thanks for that, Nichole. Obviously a lot for us to discuss, I want to get to a couple paradoxes to talk about here. I want to get to the skepticism versus the cushion of the degree, but first let’s start with the state of enrollment. Let’s start with Chancellor Garcia, can you just give us a snapshot of what you’re seeing across the State in terms of declines, and what might be driving it lines up with what Strada found?

Joe Garcia: So our experience definitely lines up with what Strada found. For those who don’t know, the common community college system has 13 colleges, some of which are along what we call our front range corridor and our metropolitan areas.

They’re the large urban and suburban campuses and we saw very different enrollment patterns there, then we did it or small rural colleges. Even within the metro area, we saw very different enrollment declines and enrollment patterns based on which students, what kind of neighborhood that college was located in. 

Our colleges that were located in primarily white and suburban communities didn’t lose enrollment, some of them even gained a little bit. For our institutions that were concentrated or that were based in heavily refugee, migrant in low-income, in communities of color.  They saw dramatic decline so that’s what we’ve seen nationally. 

The students who are staying away or those students who have a lot of other challenges facing them. They’re first generation, low income students of color, they’re precisely the students that we’ve been working on for years in order to increase, not just their enrollment but the success. It’s been very disheartening to see that we have lost so many of those students. It’s not an issue that’s going to be addressed in one year, this is going to be a long, long time to sort out.

Paul Fain: Thanks for that. Dr. Brock, any thoughts you want to share about what’s driving the declines we’re seeing around the country and Strada’s findings of what are some barriers that are contributing?

Dr. Thomas Brock: Absolutely, I would say at the Community College Research Center where I sit. We’ve analyzed many of the same data sets that Nichole talked about, and also are in conversations with college leaders all around the country.

One thing I think that is important, just to underscore is if the very communities, the very people that have been most affected by COVID are those same communities, many of the same people who are more likely to attend community colleges. 

So Joe touched on this just a moment ago, but we know the Community colleges around the country are far more likely relative to four year institutions to serve low income students, to serve first generation college students, to serve Black and Latinx students.

All of those same people, all of those same communities have been particularly hard hit by this pandemic and looking at some of the same data that Nichole talked about, we did some comparison of households, who had students who are in four year colleges or universities and households that had students in Community colleges.

Some really troubling findings emerged from that analysis, one is that households with Community college students were far more likely to report that they were directly affected by COVID.

Somebody in their household was affected or that they we’re deeply worried about someone in their household.

We also found from that analysis that households with community college students are much more likely to have experienced job loss. They are much more likely to be worried about just making basic economic commitments for the month be it rent or other bills that they had to pay.  

All of these factors, of course, they’re going to cut against going to college, and I think help to explain why we see this big drop in enrollment to community college students.

Joe Garcia: What really made this troubling problem was not just the impact on those students in those communities, but that, frankly it’s exactly the opposite of what we anticipated was going to happen six months ago.

We thought and our four year colleagues that students were going to stay close to home, they were not going to the four year residential campuses. They kept saying to us and to our state policymakers that community colleges are just going to make out like bandits because we’re going to have all the students we’ve always had. 

We’re going to have the enrollment bump that we always had due to an economic decline, in previous recessions we’ve seen that. We were going to pick up all these university students who would decide to come.

None of that happened, and so we hadn’t prepared as we should have. We didn’t cut our faculty lines, we luckily rely on a lot of adjunct faculty but we thought we would still need all of the employees. 

We had student services and faculty and that we would need even more, and obviously that did not happen.

Paul Fain: We’ve all heard that this crisis is exacerbating and accelerating existing iniquities and this seems like a case example A. One of the findings from Nichole, and like she said earlier that’s all bad news here, we’re going to get to something more positive.  

But the decline in immediate enrollment in community college from graduates of low income students that I believe are 37 percentage points down just seems terrifying about what comes next. What do you want to call it, the COVID cohort? You know the disengagement of high school students. Do either of you want to talk about what we should take away from that really troubling finding? I could start with Tom if you’d like.

Dr. Thomas Brock: I think first and foremost, there just needs to be a very concerted outreach effort to these students. Another thing we know from years of research is that the longer students spend outside of college, the longer the gap between high school and college, for example, the less likely they are ever going to begin or earn a college degree. 

These students really need to understand what the possibilities are. They need to understand that there’s going to be support for them at the College when they show up. And, of course, that should involve academic support, but equally important, particularly in this day and age, is the social support that can come from being part of a college campus being part of a college community.

Equally important is kind of thinking about the long view and how attending college will definitely improve your employment chances over the long term and will greatly improve your ability to earn a living wage for you and your household. The benefits of college and the benefits of making this investment in yourself also need to be made much clear and we need to be much more aggressive about that in the coming months.

Joe Garcia: Tom’s exactly right, but the challenge is reaching those students to give them that information. A lot of the students we serve don’t get their college going advice at home; they get it at their high school. Or their college counselors are corralling them in the lunchroom and reminding them that you’ve got to fill out a FAFSA, you’ve got to fill out an application, but our students aren’t there. Counselors are saying they can’t engage the students.

What we saw this Fall was a significant drop off in the first time enrolled students are continuing students weren’t down much but we were down by double digits among those students coming straight from high school to college, they just work. And in talking to a colleague at the Department of Education that deals with K through 12, she cautioned me that it’s really not just the seniors who aren’t coming that we ought to be worried about.  

She said the best indicator of high school graduation in the future is looking at ninth grade grade levels and how many students in ninth grade are getting F’s or not coming to school due to frequent absences. She said, those are record levels. What that tells us is that those students aren’t just going to you know it’s not just when you seem to don’t show up next year.

It’s going to be the students who don’t show up three years from now, so this is not something we should anticipate will be over in the Fall.

Dr. Brock: If I could just add a few thoughts, you know traditionally community colleges have not done alot in the way of marketing themselves marketing what they have to offer to students into the larger community. 

They don’t tend to have large advertising budgets, for example Tthat all makes sense, but again, if you look at some of the patterns in this pandemic, the one side of institutions that actually did see a bit of an increase in student enrollment during this time, where the private sector schools, not community colleges.

It was not a big bump, but it was a small bump. What are they doing? They’re marketing actively, they’re showing students how easy it is to enroll in their particular institutions. They do often provide that upfront support to help students with financial aid applications, or whatever.

Oftentimes, those are not actually the best institutions for students to choose, they can end up with a lot more debt. They are probably less likely to earn a degree at many of these institutions but nonetheless those places are ready, with their messaging. I think something we’ve learned through this pandemic is that community colleges also need to be ready with their messaging.

They will need partners, they will need public sector agencies to support them in this effort, they’ll need nonprofit groups and churches and others also to be partnering in communicating with these populations.

Nichole Torpey-Saboe: We did a little research into this earlier in the year about just who those trusted sources of information are. I think you’re absolutely right, that even if it’s coming from the college, sometimes it doesn’t go directly from the college to the prospective student right? 

It goes to their parents, or their church group, or their Community organization. People are going to reach out to those social networks and if they’re the first ones to go to college, it’s harder to have that information or those role models. You know, how to get that into the hands of people who are trusted. You’re talking about messages, it is just making that clear connection with what we know to be true that community colleges can connect you with a future and a path.

You know, show that plan, which I think some of the for profits, you know that you mentioned, are aggressive in that way, and putting that message out there and so making sure that all that information is out there about public sector community colleges.

Joe Garcia: An important part of that message is that we want to help, not just rebuild communities in the economy, but help our students be prepared to help rebuild the economy. 

That means a lot of them will have to gain skills that they don’t currently have. They lost their jobs in hospitality or tourism, or in the service industry. We need to provide them with the skills to know that are in demand in healthcare, technology, and manufacturing.

That’s just a matter of getting them back and saying you got to change direction. Your job isn’t just going to come back in six weeks or six months, it may not come back at all, so you need to prepare for something else that we can help you do that.

Paul Fain: Well let’s continue on the messaging discussion here to talk a bit about the skepticism you know, I was surprised by the volume of the increase of the skepticism on non-degree holders and the value of higher education.

Obviously we’ve we’ve been hearing “Is coIlege worth it?”  for years now, but any thoughts about what’s driving that in the shorter term and what to do about it? Given limited marketing budgets and ways to get your message out to prospective students.

Joe Garcia: I find it particularly troubling because so many of the people saying we should doubt the value of higher education are people who have the benefit of a higher education.

And who expect to send their kids not just to college, but to the very best colleges. They’re telling other people you don’t need it, skills matter more than degrees.

And employers sometimes say that but employers aren’t hiring based on that. They still are hiring. They still want skills, but they’re still hiring based on degrees. I’m sorry I interrupted you, Tom. 

Dr. Brock: I agree 100 percent with what you’re saying and this really is a big disconnect if we look at the data. For many, many years, there is just unequivocal data and evidence to show that earning a college degree is worth it for students. And we have looked much more recently at data just during the pandemic and we see again that students who have a community college degree are much more likely to be  employed than those who have no more than a high school diploma.They’re much less likely to be worried about their finances. So many indicators really point in the direction of getting this experience, of getting the credentials behind you.

But somehow that is being lost on many of the students were trying to reach and many of the households were kind to reach. Here again I think you know much more effective marketing is needed, I don’t mean to put too much emphasis there but also thinking about when students show up at the door to a community college.

Even before community college, while they’re still in high school really understanding what it takes to begin a particular career pathway. Working with students to understand the various options that are available to them and what different kinds of academic and career paths may lead to.

Helping students understand this is possible, that there is financial aid available, that there are supports available in counseling and advising but here to the community colleges looking nationally, don’t always do as an effective job as they need to to communicate these points.

Joe Garcia:  A part of that is a function of resources. That is when we go and talk to state legislators and policymakers, about the need for more funding. One of the things they always emphasize is, we want to see these dollars go into the classroom and nowhere else.

Not the student support services, certainly not to marketing and if we do any of those things we get challenged that we’re using public dollars inappropriately. Our students need more student support services than the better prepared students who often end up with universities, but on a per student basis. 

Our funding,if you add intuition and state support, is just dramatically lower, so we have less in the way of resources to serve the students who most need support. That’s historically been the case for Community colleges and it’s gotten worse in the last year.

Paul Fain: So folks are asking a lot of good questions and we’ve had quite a few about the differences and experiences of rural, urban, and suburban community college students. How those enrollment challenges playing out differently and really the experience of the crisis. available jobs, you know how it’s all playing out in these different types of institutions.

Dr. Garcia, anything you can say there? I mean you and I have talked about the plight of the rural community college before, talk about a sobering topic, but what are you seeing on the ground right now?

Joe Garcia: Significant problems that are small rural institutions. They are already challenged because they have again, less in the way of resources they generate fewer tuition dollars.And they are more dependent on the resident student and we’ve had challenges there because, like the four years we haven’t been able to fill up our dorms. And a lot of our rural colleges are also very dependent on student athletes. 

We’ve got community colleges around the country, rural community colleges, that a third of the students are involved in athletic programs. If you can’t run your sports teams and you can open your dorms, you can’t collect tuition dollars. Rural communities were,much more likely to rural colleges, to serve students who are from outside the community. And right now, those students are staying home and when you’re not staying home and you’re coming to our dorms we’re having to have doubles or triples.

We have singles, it has a dramatic impact on revenues and costs so we’ve seen really challenging situations at our rural colleges that are much worse than suburban colleges.

Paul Fain: Tom, anything you want to add there?

Dr. Brock: I would agree with those points, and let me just also say,  in our work at CCRC looking at community colleges around the country, it’s not always clear why some places seem to be struggling more than others. We have noticed a pattern that some colleges that have really taken seriously for some time their own need to put more emphasis on the counseling and advising function; that have made concerted efforts to make sure that students begin with an advisor at the start of their college experience and stay with that student throughout the entire time of their college enrollment.

Many of those institutions have been more effective in keeping their students engaged and it just underscores again, I think the need for more attention and resources in this area. I agree wholeheartedly with what Dr. Garcia said that this historically has been an area of under investment for Community colleges, and that simply needs to change.

Paul Fain: So another area of questions we’re seeing in the Q&A gets at the jobs that community colleges are preparing folks for. When we think about the inequities and in the impact of this crisis, certain sectors certain jobs occupations have been hit the hardest.I imagine a difficult challenge to retool your offerings or even your marketing of offerings when it’s not clear what jobs are really out there. Dr. Garcia, can you talk a little bit about how to tackle that challenge in such a fast moving recessionary environment?

Joe Garcia: It is fast moving and again, the challenge we face is getting good information to prospective students and to our current students. It’s always frustrating that in our rural community colleges where our largest programs are in things like Barbering and Cosmetology.

I know a lot of students who want to pursue those degrees, but frankly the payoff isn’t there and they would do much better if we could get them into IT, or advanced manufacturing, or even welding and construction but students have an idea of what they’d like to do.

It’s hard to get the right information to then help them make informed decisions about how to invest their time and their money. I think if we work with employers to bring them lawyers to campuses and meet with students earlier and talk about those opportunities.

That’s going to be really important, but again it’s getting people together to do that. When we physically upbringing fewer and fewer people to our campuses, and so what we’ve known for decades is that increasing student engagement increases student success and we are facing real challenges around that.

Dr. Brock: The one thing I would add is that community colleges do provide skills training in a wide variety of areas, and you know many of the fields that are still adding workers right now.

Healthcare, broadly speaking, has a lot of opportunity for workers at all levels, and many of those jobs provide real opportunity for advancement overtime. Community colleges can get students started oftentimes with a certificate program in a particular field and then work toward an associates or a bachelor’s degree within this profession..

That is certainly something where opportunity abounds and it’s another area that I think community colleges can do more to market what they have available and to support students in those paths.

Dr. Garcia mentioned IT, we have all moved to this world where everything is being done online, that is true in retail now. It is true in regular office operations. A vast need for people that can come into organizations to support IT functions in various ways again opportunities for relatively short term programs that often lead to degrees and higher wage opportunities.

Paul Fain: Just to piggyback there Chancellor Garcia, I know the Colorado colleges are ahead of the curve in some new approaches to apprenticeship, particularly in healthcare, can you talk about what’s kind of most promising that you’re seeing there?

Joe Garcia: That’s huge for us, thank you for bringing that up. You know healthcare is not an area where we’ve seen apprenticeships being used, you know we’ve always seen that primarily in the trades, what we are doing here in Colorado is looking for any work-based experience in apprenticeships.

Not just in health care, but in things like financial services and so we’ve partnered with employers that have really helped students, it helps them see a pathway to a good job, it helps them stay engaged with the education when they’re able to apply it at the same time they’re getting that education.

We’ve got a lot of healthcare partners who are working with us. They’ve long complained about the lack of student supply, so we’re doing a better job of that yet that’s been challenging because these are also the paths that generally require more face to face instruction and we’ve been a little bit challenged by that over this past year. 

It’s hard to get nursing students, for example, into a clinical setting when a lot of those hospitals don’t want people in, and when we don’t even want them in our classrooms, but we need to figure out how to keep them engaged.

Paul Fain: So folks in the Q&A are beating me to the punch on policy incentives and solutions, we were going to get there, so let’s get there now. I’ll come back to you, Chancellor Garcia, I know you have a proposal on the table now to try to help students stay engaged to become engaged in higher education, can you talk a little bit about that?

Joe Garcia: Yes, we are trying to do several things to get our state policymakers to recognize that it’s not just a problem with keeping people overall going to college or keeping students enrolled. It is particular populations, we have a statewide strategic plan that focuses on closing the gaps with students of color, first generation, and low income students and those gaps aren’t closing.

They are widening, so we are saying to the policymakers “Let’s not just say we need more money generally in higher ed”, let’s target that money to these first generation students and help them make the decision to enroll. We’ve seen twice as big a decline in African American students, three times as big a decline in our low income students, four times as big decline among male students as female students and that one I can’t answer, I was going to ask Nicole about that.

What we want to do is say let’s tell students, it really is worth their while because that’s what we know it goes to Nicole slides about the skepticism about the value. Let’s make it worth your while let’s give them more than a pell grant so we’re talking about a pell plus program that would say we’re going to give you more money to continue and we’ll give you twice as many just to enroll to get you started. 

Now, of course, we would have to build controls around that to make sure they are really coming to school and staying and have them meet with an advisor. But those things are costly, but I think a greater cost is losing a generation of students and seeing our enrollment gaps that are in our success gaps that we’ve long struggled seeing those get worse. That’s a bigger problem.

Paul: Tom, anything you want to add there? I’m looking right now at the state incentives. To me, a lot of things about what Joe’s proposing are worth watching, but the targeting to first gen in other groups seems really smart and interesting.

Dr. Brock:I would agree completely and you know just in general I think the problem of resources and directing resources to students, first of all to really simplify and clarify this message that college is accessible, it is affordable. There’s so much confusion around what college actually costs, what students will be responsible for, and what might be picked up through State or federal grants and possibly loans in some cases. 

One thing that I think is very encouraging, right now, many of these discussions we’ve been having around college promise around free college. You know, there are different ways that could be implemented, but fundamentally, if we can simplify the message if we can provide that assurance to students, that the support is there for you, that it will be there for you to get through at least two years of college, that I think will be a huge help.

The other part of this conversation, though, needs to be focused on institutions and, earlier we talked about some of the resource challenges that Community colleges have that they don’t have budgets for. Marketing, for example, that they often are strapped in the area of counseling and advising. And, whatever happens in the next few years, particularly at the federal level, I hope that we will begin to address this issue. 

If you look at community college financing relative to the four year sector vastly vastly less money per student for functions like advising and counseling for basic instruction, even though Community colleges service student base that arguably is in greater need than the average four year college student, so we simply need to address that on some of these fundamental in equities.

Paul Fain: Watching the stimulus funding and its use in the way those formulas were developed we all took notice of this last time around the adjustment to better reflect the part time student that Community colleges are more likely to serve as you know, I think the cares act reflected more full time and iI hope i’m getting the stat right, but I think just got about 27 percent of that cures act funding, despite being over 40 percent of the enrollment but it looks like the last stimulus fixed that a little bit depending on your perspective. 

Looking forward, is there any anything you’d really like to see? What should the feds be doing right now to help the sector? Where are your top priorities? Let’s start with Joe.

Joe Garcia: I think that fits in at the State level, we do need to be focused on students and not this mythical sort of full time equivalent where we take several students and say those several students equal one full time student in will fund them as one student now or four year institutions in this state really like that method.

It doesn’t work for us most of our students are part time and most of our students have significant needs, so I think if we can focus more on the students, the number that headcount rather than the FTE, we can do a better job of supporting those students,  because every one of those students, even if it’s four students who make up one FTE. 

Each one of them needs advising, each one of them needs to see somebody in financial aid, each one of them needs technology resources those things come at a cost, and right now we are again and trying to serve the media students with the least amount of money, I would say it’s like we’re trying to send the sickest patients to the worst hospitals with the worst equipment and we’re saving our best hospitals are best doctors.

For the patients who are the healthiest now maybe that is what we do in our US healthcare system but it’s wrong and wrong and healthcare and it’s wrong in higher education.

Paul Fain: Absolutely. Tom?

Dr. Brock: I agree with all of that, and let me just say too, the community colleges across the country serve a highly diverse population, including very diverse in terms of age and life circumstances so if you’re looking at older. Individuals who may be thinking about returning to community college, what support do they need, how do those differ from those of a 18 year old or 19 year old, who probably is still living at home and coming straight out of high school? 

Many state financial aid programs actually segregate by age or simply make ineligible certain student groups, because they are too old and I don’t see how that makes sense I don’t see how it addresses any State interested how it addresses any business or economic interest. 

We simply need to broaden our view of who is the College student and what kinds of support your students and various circumstances need to succeed.

Paul Fain: Let’s turn to the connection to careers again, seeing some questions about what’s possible for a typically cash strapped sector in terms of career services, but as Nichole pointed out the tear sector does get relatively harmless high marks for relevance to careers. You know I’m thinking about incentives that could help there you know i’ve been really interested in Virginia’s REV program where you know the state is actually paying to help you know certifications be embedded in high demand fields but what are you seeing and we’ll start with Tom on this what you know, given the resource constraints what could be done to help? Can you help us do better in terms of that connection to the workforce?

Dr. Brock: I think anything we can do to tighten the connection between Community colleges and employers will help. This is not new territory to community colleges, I have never visited a Community college, it doesn’t have some kind of advisory board, for example.

But how can we deepen those kinds of partnerships? What else can the private sector be doing really to support not only the training that takes place at Community colleges, but providing apprenticeship opportunities, internships, and other ways for Community college students to get a start within their particular fields or organization?

We do see you know some examples around the country of this kind of effort, but they tend to be very small scale, so I think the next conversation we need to have nationally is really thinking about what kinds of support and what kinds of incentives might be needed to really deepen and greatly broaden the reach of these initiatives?

Joe Garcia: I think Paul that we also have to recognize, Tom’s exactly right, we have to recognize that a lot of the high demand fields and the ones that we hear policymakers telling us we need to do more are high cost programs high cost programs for which we generally charge the same tuition. You know their healthcare, their manufacturing, those are things that you know are very expensive to equip staff, generally small class sizes.

And the kinds of things that the policymakers to say we shouldn’t be doing the liberal arts, frankly, the English and math classes. Those are what we realized cross subsidize the other pro if we’re going to only offer courses in those high demand field, we have to either double our tuition or get twice as much support from the state to do it, and I think people just often lose sight of that.

Paul Fain: Quick note on the point I made about Virginia’s REV program from a commenter or they were able to do that with CARES act funding so that was a federal subsidized program. We’ve been talking about employers there’s there’s quite a bit of talk among employers about getting creative and partnering up with community colleges doing more skills based hiring.

You know, looking to go beyond the four year degree in hiring it’s really hard to get a sense of how deep that goes. I’m just wondering, i’ll start with Joe, are you seeing improvements there? How much and how much more do we need to make this really take off?

Joe Garcia: Perhaps I’ve gotten cynical Paul, in these years of working with employers, I often hear them say we care about skills. You know, provide people with the skills, because the people we’re hiring now don’t have the skills we’re looking for. 

I was in a meeting yesterday with all of our trustee members from all over the governing boards and state and one of those folks amends that runs a construction company. They want the skills, but they still hire based on the degree, they use that essentially to weed people out.

They’ve got to be pretty desperate before they hire based just on skills they use the degree, is a bit of a proxy for knowing whether people have those other skills, those soft skills, some people call them critical workplace skills, others but they want both, and I have seen some movement as they’ve gotten desperate. But I still think that our employers are not doing what they say.

What matters is hiring just based on demonstrated skills, if we can get more students into the workplace with those employees if they’ll hire them while they’re still students.

They’ll get a chance to see them in action, and I think they are far more likely to hire if they’ve actually been in the workplace and have experience and if they just come out of one of our classrooms are labs and trying to get a job.

Paul Fain: I’ll turn to Tom but first, Nichole, do any of the findings relate to what works best and entice to careers and employers? You know might have some more depth and you’re able to get into it in the deck or anything you want to amplify?

Nichole Torpey-Saboe: Yeah I mean I think we’re right on with no matter how many times we asked this question in different ways. It’s something that we keep coming back to is just students having experiences that are directly relevant to careers. I think Tom was right on and he was saying about doing it earlier. 

You know, and you know just as Joe is saying that a lot of these students, you know they get their support for applying to community college, while they’re still in high school well if they find those connections to careers, while they’re still in high school, just as we have concurrent enrollment classes, you know if those also incorporate internships or work based learning, hen you already have the opportunity to get a student into a pathway where they’re having some of those applied experiences. 

I think we’ve seen them more of that student’s experience, the more likely they are to see that relevance and to be motivated that their education is going to be valuable and keep going, and I think just you all can speak to what more employers can do, but I think we need to get more creative about a wide variety of ways to do work based learning. 

You know if it’s if it’s a short term, you know just career exploration for you know, a day or just all the different ways that you can bring in those times, I think. You know the more the better in terms of giving students that experience before they graduate.

Paul Fain: Gotcha Nicole. I want to turn to Tom in a second. Any thing that you’ve seen about the just the massive decline and men at community colleges in some states? I haven’t seen any reasons or explanations for that.

Nichole Torpey-Saboe: I mean that is something that we’ve seen kind of a decline in interest among males generally over the past few years of our survey research. A lot of it again, has to do with what kind of connections they’re seeing to employment, I think, historically, you know for women it’s been more necessary to get higher education, maybe to get that you know better job.

It’s something similar, for I mean frankly it’s it’s white male and rural where we’ve seen the biggest declines in interest in higher education and so I think you know in other communities, maybe they see it as more necessary to making that next step, and you know getting a better job.

And so that’s you know kind of what we have to work with us, if people don’t see that incentive it’s not just costs as in you know how much you pay tuition but there’s all kinds of costs, and if you don’t see the benefit that’s going to outweigh that, then, why would you enroll?

Joe Garcia: That really goes to I think what I think needs to address Paul because there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what the cost of higher education than the value of higher education. Right now, people are overestimating the cost and under estimating the value. Somehow and maybe it goes to Tom’s message about marketing and communication, but we’ve got to get people to understand it doesn’t cost as much as you think, especially community colleges, especially with the availability of health funds and the value it really is there.

We shouldn’t be skeptical about it because it’s been demonstrated, over and over and over if you have a credential you’re much more likely to be employed and much more likely to be in a living wage job and much less likely to lose a job as a result of any kind of crisis.

Paul Fain: Tom, a lot said there.

Dr. Brock: No just reflecting on all that’s been said, I think, for many community college students and maybe for men in particular doing any kind of work any kind of study that is more hands on that is experiential I think actually is a way to draw them in and to engage them and to keep them. So that is just another area where I think we need to take a look as a sector and see if we are doing enough to really make the community college experience enriching and rewarding for students we’ve talked a little bit about.

Apprenticeships, internships, you know, perhaps what might be the high end examples, but even within classes themselves there’s so much more often, that can be done in the way of project based learning, for example, that gives students that hands on experience.

So much more that can be done to really help students build their own portfolio that they could take out on interviews or demonstrate to potential employers what it is they’re capable of doing. Technology actually can be a resource, there have been huge advances in simulations of all types and really helping students. They’ll be able to tackle real world problems via the computer and thinking about creative ways that can be brought into the classroom so all of these things matter and it then just kind of brings me to the starting question you had Paul around skills.

I think here too community colleges in particular need to take a hard look at what skills they are imparting what skills they are emphasizing in are those in fact the right skills for the current environment. I am thinking in particular about the ongoing emphasis sometimes over emphasis on developmental education, remedial education. 

Focusing students in developmental math in particular that can feel very disconnected from anything those students want to do in their work lives. Some of what we’re learning through our work is that fundamental basic math may be less important than just quantitative literacy and, in particular, digital literacy having comfort and facility with computers and data, knowing how to input data, how to extract data, how to interpret data.

Those actually are different skill sets than your traditional math class at a community college teachers and I’m thinking taught well and indeed we’ve seen some examples were taught well. This can actually be very engaging for students and help them on their journey to employment.

Paul Fain: We’ve got just a little bit more time, I just wanted to ask one more question. You know, it feels like in Washington, where I am that the discussion around short term pell directing federal grant aid towards really short term programs is going to be one we’re going to be hearing about a lot. Some folks think there’s a lot of potential, I think, largely the community college sector is favorable on that, but a lot of folks are also worried about Quality Control and whether these things will be stackable. whether students can really put them together to that sort of degree that, as we all know, is the greatest buffer in our times.

Any quick thoughts on that debate and what we should be watching? We’ll start with Joe.

Joe Garcia: I think what we need to watch for is to make sure that this is not an area where again the for profit institutions suck up the majority of that money right away that they will adapt to create short term certificate programs that are of questionable or have no value in the workplace.

But they’ll suck a lot of students and they’ll suck up a lot of those dollars, but they won’t be helping students get actual jobs so quality control is going to be important here, you can get a short term credential that will be a value, but not all short term credentials are a value and that’s going to be our channel.

Paul Fain: A quick data point on the for profit sector, you know I know folks had seen it tick up a little bit in this crisis, but I’m sure we all remember that it’s been a long slide for them prior to this so interesting period of transformation for that sector. Different players, some of the big chains have gone away, so  certainly something to watch in this debate. Tom, anything on short term pell you want to add in the last couple thoughts here?

Dr Brock: I would add two thoughts: one short term programs, on the condition that they applied, that the credits will apply towards a degree program and that students are encourage to go on that path. Or at least to consider that path. Secondly, I think this is an area we just need to continue to look at who’s choosing these programs versus degree programs.

Are we inadvertently reinforcing some of the equity caps, we see so often in higher education, where black students latinx studentsare disproportionately being served by the short term programs that maybe have less of a future and other students are getting access to the degree program? So we really need to keep a careful eye.

Paul Fain: Well, I want to thank Tom and Joe for indulging such a wide range of questions. You know just so much going on in the sector, I know we barely skim the surface, but I learned a lot, this is a fantastic session. I want to thank all of you for tuning in and asking so many good questions and Nichole for walking us through the findings.

In the news from Strada

July 16, 2021
July 28, 2021 | Examining the Value of Nondegree Credentials

The number of organizations offering nondegree credentials is proliferating, and interest from learners in these credentials — certificates, certifications, and licenses — is growing. But even though these credentials are now in the spotlight, we have relatively sparse data on outcomes. To provide more understanding, through a Strada-Gallup survey we asked more than 14,000 adults across the nation about earnings, job satisfaction, and perceptions about the worth and benefits of nondegree credentials. This month’s Strada Public Viewpoint release compares learner outcomes across degree, nondegree, and combined pathways. By examining programs of different lengths and the experiences of different populations, we aim to provide insights that inform our understanding of the value and potential limitations of nondegree credentials. Join Strada researchers and expert panelists at 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 28, for a discussion about the findings and implications for the field. As part of the ongoing Strada Public Viewpoint research started in March 2020, Strada Education Network has talked to tens of thousands of people in the United States about their experiences with work and education during the pandemic. The research is intended to inform education and training providers, policymakers, and employers who are helping people complete valuable and purposeful education pathways.