Published on 2020/01/17

The EvoLLLution | Community College Enrollment and Unemployment
Community colleges can create significant outcomes for their communities by finding ways to deliver active learning across learners’ lifetimes. Photo courtesy of the Maine Community College System.

Community colleges and the unemployment rate have long held a cyclical relationship. Two-year colleges have traditionally seen enrollments rise as jobs disappear in economic downturns and enrollments fall when jobs are plentiful. Given the close connection community colleges have with vocational and specific industry preparation, this is a logical correlation. But in today’s economy, transformed by technological advances and demand for new skills, is that cycle changing?

In the last year, the number of trainees who completed short-term training funded by the Maine Community College System’s Maine Quality Centers (MQC) program increased about 80% to 1,602, up from 897 in the previous year. MQC works with Maine employers to provide free customized training for trainees, focused on strengthening the skills of the Maine workforce. This increase has occurred despite a consistent decline in Maine’s unemployment rate, which currently sits at 2.9%.

In this interview, Charlie Collins reflects on the work the Maine Community College System is doing to maintain stability in enrollment numbers despite the strong labor market.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): We know community colleges are used to declining enrollments when the economy is strong and unemployment is low. Is that cycle going to continue into the future?

Charles Collins (CC) No, it is not. We’re seeing a real shift in how much those economic factors influence enrollment because we’re seeing more students enrolling despite the strong economy and low unemployment. It signals a need for everyone to continue with lifelong learning, increasing their skills, and for our colleges to continually look at ways we can connect students with a variety of training and credential earning opportunities.

Evo: What can community colleges do to address the skill demands from industries and employers even as their enrollments continue to decline?

CC: Community colleges need to offer an array of training programs that create opportunities for students to get the skills they need for the jobs they want. That can mean breaking down two-year associate degrees into one-year certificates, breaking down one-year certificates into short- term workforce training programs, and breaking down short-term training into microcredentials in the form of digital badges.

We know when training and education is delivered into shorter start-to-finish segments, more students succeed and earn credentials on a timeline that better meets their personal needs. Colleges have to build a system of bite-sized learning that can be reconnected and stacked back into the traditional and non-traditional credentials.

Evo: That sounds like a major restructuring of how community colleges operate now. Is this realistic?

CC: We are already doing this at Maine’s community colleges, as have many others that are focused on meeting the local training needs of the community. We see this in expanded regional collaborations between education, business and industry, workforce and economic development agencies. We see it happening here in Maine with a focused effort to address workforce shortages in high-demand, high-wage jobs in computer and IT, construction trades, healthcare, hospitality, manufacturing and transportation sectors. These renewed collaborations are influencing our colleges to look at the different ways we have been delivering a degree program.

Evo: What are Maine’s community colleges doing to address the issues raised?

CC: The system is doing several things to address these issues. In response to demand, we’ve greatly expanded our short-term training through the system’s Maine Quality Centers, which partners with local businesses and industries to provide free training that delivers exactly the skills training needed to meet industry demand. We’ve seen that program grow 80% in the last year, and we’re on track to more than double the number of trainees this year. We also constantly assess and adjust our academic program offerings, in some cases eliminating or adding programs, or adjusting two-year programs to one-year programs. Several colleges now offer a one-year Medical Assistant certificate that serves as the first year of a two-year Medical Assistant Associate degree. The certificate model has allowed the local Healthcare System to create a Medical Assistant apprenticeship position, that allows a new pathway into this high-demand occupation in our state. We’ve also launched microcredentials this year at two of our campuses.

Overlaying all of that is a commitment to creating learning pathways for students to enter the system at any level and then stack their credentials toward traditional certificates and academic degrees. We are seeing a lot of success with students completing training programs and that kind of success is key to the overall health and sustainability for all community colleges.

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Key Takeaways

  • Lifelong learning models can help community colleges create consistency in enrollment patterns despite the fluctuations of the labor market.
  • Certificates and microcredentials are critical to a shift toward supporting lifelong learning, unbundling packaged programs and facilitating just-in-time learning.
  • Collaboration between colleges and local training providers helps insulate enrollment from labor market trends, which benefit colleges, regions and learners alike.