Supporting Working Adults at the Community College (Part 1)
Community colleges should partner with local workforce development boards and chambers of commerce to identify labor market trends and develop their programming accordingly.
This is the first of a two-part series by Ian Roark exploring the strategies community colleges must put into place to better serve working adult students.

In this time of economic uncertainty and incredible change in local and regional labor markets across the United States, it is increasingly important for postsecondary institutions to establish a clear connection between the academy and the workforce, especially for their students who are also working adults. Three ways that community colleges can establish such a connection include:

  1. Aligning educational programming to the labor market
  2. Blending the concepts and structures of education and training
  3. Scheduling classes to support student access and success

Non-Traditional is the New Normal

On the whole, postsecondary educational programming has been based on the notion that most incoming college students are primarily middle class, 18 years old, recent high school graduates enrolled full-time in a four-year college, who meet college-level standards of academic preparedness.

However, fewer than one in six undergraduate students now fit the archetype of a traditional college enrollee. This is especially the case with the employment patterns and class schedules of community college students. According to some estimates, 71 percent of community college students work while attending school, with 57 percent working more than 20 hours per week. Given these dynamics, it is important for community colleges to improve their delivery of professional and ongoing development programming for these working adults.

1. Labor Market Alignment

The best way colleges can support working adults is to offer programs that lead to gainful employment in the locale or region to begin with. In the song “I Know What I Know,” songwriter Paul Simon asks, “Who am I to blow against the wind?” When it comes to educational programming and alignment to the labor market, community college leaders should ask this very question.

Often times, community colleges offer “boutique” programs or jump on the latest program bandwagon without considering whether such programs align to the local or regional labor market. For instance, many colleges jump into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines without first understanding what STEM looks like in terms of gainful employment for their graduates. Too often, STEM has been broadly interpreted to mean, “We need more engineers,” when perhaps the regional labor market calls for more instrumentation and automation technicians.

In this vein, community college leaders should examine the labor market statistics for their service areas and surrounding regions in collaboration with workforce development boards, economic development entities and chambers of commerce, and adjust their programming accordingly. Then, students would begin to see the value of college programming in terms of jobs that mean real wages and real opportunities. When students’ advancement in their current jobs and careers align to the education they receive from the local college, they are more likely to persist and succeed in their college program. In other words, relevancy matters.

This is the first of a two-part series. To read the conclusion, please click here.

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Readers Comments

Natalie Miller 2014/02/10 at 10:54 am

I agree with Roark that it’s important for colleges to align their programs to current labor market needs. At the same time, I believe an important aspect of higher education is its ability to identify future labor market trends and educate its students accordingly. I wonder if these two priorities can be reconciled.

Simon Pickering 2014/02/10 at 3:58 pm

Many institutions seem to be struggling with this issue. On one hand, our unemployment numbers show there is a need to better educate our population, and specifically for industries that have labor gaps. On the other hand, institutions run the risk of over-credentialing in one particular industry.

One way to overcome this challenge is by making programs more interdisciplinary. That way, students will gain skills that can be applied to multiple industries. Students should also be taught how to adapt to a changing labor market, and colleges should focus on core skills such as analytical skills or communication skills.

g s c 2014/02/11 at 11:12 am

Colleges may adapt the programs they offer, but there’s still a chance adult students won’t want to enroll in them if we don’t first change the perspective they have of these non-degree (e.g. certificate, diploma) programs. I find students tend to pick the programs that are at the top of the fields they’re interested in rather than ones that might better fit their career goals. There’s the perception that choosing anything less is worthless. For example, a student might enroll in an MBA when he or she really just needs a few courses in advanced accounting. Roark also talks about the common perception that choosing the STEM disciplines means becoming an engineer. Students need to be given more guidance in the program selection and enrollment process to ensure they’re picking credentials that not only fit their goals but also the market’s needs.

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