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The Four Abilities: Characteristics Worth Attention in a Tightening Education Marketplace

The EvoLLLution The Four Abilities: Characteristics Worth Attention in a Tightening Education Marketplace
For community colleges to stay competitive and serve learners in an increasingly tumultuous environment, it’s critical to focus on the four key characteristics that set these institutions apart in the first place.

Scanning the higher education marketplace of today, one will notice a conglomeration of institutions vying for a decreasing number of potential college applicants. Community colleges in particular are feeling the stress of competition as enrollment flattens or decreases across the country while private and online education moves into the training and sub-baccalaureate space. Competition is not the only influence on enrollment that community colleges must endure; other major factors include low unemployment, rising tuition and negative public perceptions of a community college education.1

In North Carolina, for example, the Community College System was established by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1963 to provide low-cost, highly accessible technical training across the state. Within three years, there were 43 institutions serving more than 28,000 students. Today, the NC Community College System serves about 700,000 students annually through 58 institutions. And yet, total enrollment across the system is down from its peak of nearly 850,000 students in 2010. How can community colleges combat the factors that impact enrollment in a highly competitive and moody marketplace?

Community colleges should simply go back to their roots of the four “abilities” that make them great: Accessibility, Affordability, Capability, and Flexibility.

The First Two Abilities: Accessibility and Affordability

What separates community colleges from most higher education institutions is accessibility and affordability. Enrollment requirements at most community colleges are limited, and all colleges in North Carolina consider multiple measures as alternatives for course placement, including students’ grade point average or standardized entrance exams or SAT and ACT scores for students to demonstrate competency. Additionally, many community colleges have multiple campus locations or are established in population centers, making commuting easier for their students. Community colleges need to continually scan their access and entry processes to ensure barriers are removed for all populations of potential students. According to the Brookings Institute, in the fall of 2015, US community colleges served a large share of the country’s non-white undergraduates: 56 percent of Native Americans, 52 percent of Hispanics, 43 percent of African-Americans and 40 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders. Recognizing their growing Hispanic and Latino student population, Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina is investigating the challenges that this specific student population experiences when accessing and navigating the college entry process. Jose Fabre, Wake Tech’s student government president, is working with anthropology professor Tom Beaman to study the barriers faced by Hispanic and Latino students. Jose’s student perspective on accessibility factors will supplement the college’s efforts to embrace underserved populations and help them access, enter, progress and succeed at the college.

Affordability is a hallmark of community colleges and, in the era of large student debt, it makes attending a community college a more financially logical decision than ever before. Furthermore, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce reports there are high paying jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree, and in some sectors, like the trades, a great job is available with some community college training and an industry-recognized certification.2 The Virginia Community College System understands this fact well, and implemented a legislatively supported program that paid two-thirds of a student’s costs upon successfully completing course work at a community college and attaining an approved industry-recognized certification. Further pushing the model of affordability, tuition-free or “last dollar” programs for qualifying community college students are taking hold in 17 states, many of which are modeled after the Tennessee Promise program that began in 2015.3 Although many people across the country are in favor of tuition-free programs at community colleges (78% favor free tuition), these programs do not address classroom space and equipment that community colleges need to provide students with the skills and competencies required for high paying jobs.

The Second Two Abilities: Capability and Flexibility

The last two “abilities” worth the attention of community college administrators are capability and flexibility. These two characteristics are closely connected, as a college’s ability to offer occupation-specific training (capability) impacts its ability to offer courses to meet working students’ schedules (flexibility). Most colleges must rely on grants and industry donations to keep up with the most current technology or equipment. One early spring day in 2014, several NC Community College System Office leaders were touring Craven Community College’s machining labs when a member of the tour group noticed a drab gray lathe sitting in a corner. Mounted to the side of the lathe was a plaque that read, “This Machine Conforms To The Orders Of The War Production Board.” Surprisingly, the lathe is a veteran of World War II and rumored to have served aboard the USS North Carolina. Facility maintenance, staff wages and benefits, and security tend to trump equipment in funding priority among most colleges, resulting in inadequate funds for equipment. Small budgets spread across many high-cost programs force colleges to make do with equipment that in many cases is older than the students. This also has a direct impact on the public perception of community colleges. Parents and students may question the logic of attending a community college to be trained on a 70-year-old piece of equipment when private for-profit training providers (hundreds of dollars more per credit hour compared to community college tuition) market by highlighting classrooms and labs with cutting-edge equipment.

Most institutions take pride in being able to be flexible in meeting the needs of non-traditional student populations. However, when classrooms lack equipment, or the college lacks funds to attract instructors who can make more in private industry, the institution’s capability and flexibility take a hit. At a recent North Carolina industry round table, representatives from local construction companies stated that a lack of training options in the evening and on weekends hampered their efforts to maintain a highly trained workforce.4 In response, the local community colleges partnered with several general contractors to share resources. The contractors provided instructors and building materials, and the college provided space and tools. This type of public-private partnership must be expanded if community colleges are expected to compete in the existing marketplace.

When colleges focus on Accessibility, Affordability, Capability and Flexibility, it increases their credibility with students, businesses and the communities they serve, and allows them to present a competitive argument in a tightening market for students.

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1 Smith, A. “Community College Enrollments Drop.” Inside Higher Education, October 2016.

2 Carnevale et. Al. Certificates in Oregon: A model for workers to jump-start or reboot careers. 2018.

3 US News & World Report, September 2018.

4 NC Community College 2018 Report to the Council of Associations for Engagement, August 2018).

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