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The Fundamental Transformation in the Role of Community Colleges

There’s a continuous demand for short-term credentials, and community colleges are positioned well to help meet this need while meeting their mission to serve the community and economy. 

Learner demographics are changing, and more adults are looking to higher education to keep them relevant in the workforce. This means an increasing demand in short-term programming, and institutions are struggling to keep pace. Community colleges have been serving this audience for decades and are well-positioned to deliver on this. It’s also an opportunity for the rest of higher ed to leverage their knowledge and expertise to develop their own short-term programming that meets industry and learner needs. In this interview, Monty Sullivan discusses driving short-term offerings, creating opportunities for accessible education and encouraging students to continue their lifelong learning journey

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the challenges that Louisiana is facing as the state comes out of the pandemic?

Monty Sullivan (MS): Much like other community and technical colleges across the country, Louisiana’s twelve two-year colleges were impacted greatly by COVID. In particular, many of our adult students found themselves having to make really difficult decisions that put family. As they made those decisions, they had to delay their education. Unfortunately, that also had a trickle-down effect into the economy. Louisiana’s economy has a strong background in recreation, tourism, hospitality. Many of those jobs were impacted greatly. We’re beginning to see more and more things returning to normal. Many people are going out and getting the vaccine, allowing them to get back into school.

Pre-COVID, we all saw this growth in the number of short-term training programs. The credentials that were well aligned with the market. What I believe has happened as a result of COVID is, we have created a compression for so many adults out there who need now to get back into the economy quickly. They need to get into jobs that provide a good living wage. But we’ve seen those challenges now becomes opportunities—opportunities to demonstrate the alignment that our colleges have, and those short-term training programs have, to the marketplace.

Evo: To that point, how can the college system scale and drive the development of short-term training offerings to support the return to a post-pandemic economic recovery?

MS: It goes right back to the basic skill set of community and technical colleges. It all starts with employers. It starts with understanding the data and the markets. Our partners have been tremendous in helping us reset and rethink the needs out there. Taking that data and sitting down with business partners and saying, “Does this make sense for you? Is this what you’re seeing? Is this the evolution you believe is taking place within your marketplace?” That has been one of the most productive set of conversations we’ve had.

It’s also led us into a place where now employers are beginning to ask the question. Three years ago, I would’ve said to you, “Produce more associate degree graduates in a given field, process technology, instrumentation in some of these areas.” Now what I’m hearing from employers is, “Help us to get these folks skilled up to a level where we can get them employed. They can benefit. We can also send them back to school.” I fundamentally believe that the impact of COVID will change the iterative nature of education and training in this country, beyond what would have been the case say a year ago.

Evo: How do we get the college system to a point where students can flow in and out to and continue on that lifelong learning journey path?

MS: It begins with the demand component. It’s also important that everyone on the front end understands that the goal is not the first job or credential. It’s getting someone further into mid-career opportunities. The demand from employers is huge, but if you recall back in the early 2000s, we had many discussions around policy about how we reevaluate developmental education. In the midst of those discussions, we had these elongated studies of something called gatekeeper courses—college algebra and English 101, just the basics. The reality is, we set up a structure that was not aligned with workforce demands. I have fundamentally believed that inverting those degree programs, so technical certifications are earned on the front end, allowing that general education course to be completed on the top end.

A math course may be makes so much more sense once someone understands its context. We’re not only looking at an expansion of those short-term certifications, the stackability, but also the inversion of the degree. Manufacturing is not asking us for more engineers. They’re asking us for people who have the technical certifications, the understanding of the process, the associate degree. Now let’s talk about how we build a bachelor’s degree that gives them the management experience to be a mid-level manager and go even further within that organization. I see an evolution occurring here, with lots of pieces and parts coming together at a time when this nation needs our community and technical colleges more than ever.

We’ve had far too many discussions about being college-ready. We’ve put a lot of instruments and exams in front of students. The reality is,  employers are looking for the ability to predict success on the job, which is a very different thing.

Evo: How do you create more symbiosis between the different departments across the institution? 

MS: First and foremost, you get rid of the nature of two and begin to think of them as one. For instance, it’s reflective in titles. Instead of having a chief academic officer, imagine the chief content officer or chief education and training officer. We are seeing the academic officer and the workforce officer become one and the same more and more. The reality is, there is open enrollment and then there’s corporate training. That’s the way we have to begin to think about these—not as credit and non-credit, not even really as short-term and long-term—it’s about, “Are we contracting with the employer or are we enrolling the individual?” That really becomes more of the discussion.

We have lots of work to do as a sector—community and technical colleges in particular. The enrollment platforms we have are ill equipped to structure and take in what you and I would already think of as the workforce enrollments of the past. The entirety of the workforce enrollments within our community and technical colleges now are built into our banner system, which from 2013 until 2020, was purely academic credit. Many of these individuals don’t show up at our college saying, “I want college credit.” They show up saying, “I want the credential that gets me the skills that gets me the job.” We’ve got to begin to interface with those students in a way that makes sense for them and stop thinking about it in our terms, because most employers really don’t understand credit or non-credit either. They simply want to make sure their employees have the training.

Evo: How does the MJ Foster Promise Program fit into the mission of the Louisiana college system?

MS: From my point of view, it’s a broader discussion than just Louisiana. In fact, I think the promise movement is a really important movement in this country, but I think it is misstated in so many different venues. It is not about the word free.

Louisiana is a very conservative state with a very conservative legislature. If I had walked into any committee hearing and began the discussion with, “Let’s make college free,” it would have been dead on arrival. Instead, we were able to have a conversation about the needs of individuals in Louisiana, to be able to function fully within the economy and contribute to it. When you begin that kind of discussion, you have to look back to the early days of the first institutions of higher education in this country. They were aimed at educating and skilling people of a certain means. Then you had the Morrill Act right around the close of the Civil War. We have the development of these community and technical colleges. What has happened across time across 200, 300 years, is that the population’s needs have changed.

Around 1910, 1920, when we put in place the compulsory K-12 education laws, we were saying that the standard of education is a high school diploma. Today in 2020, 2021, we’re in a place where the standard of education is now at least some college, at least some credential to be viable economically. Also, in order to be a full citizen in this democracy, you need the ability to think. So much is thrown at us as Americans these days that it’s very difficult to know what the truth is.

Here in Louisiana, we have 2.3 million working age adults. 1.1 million of them have a high school diploma or less. That’s roughly half. This economy simply cannot sustain itself, unless we have more educated and skilled people. In fact, Louisiana is not an outlier in that regard. As a nation, 64 million working-aged adults have a high school diploma or less. Every single American needs some type of opportunity to get an education and skills to participate in this economy. All this happened as a result of COVID. We had this bubble, this demographic issue before COVID, but now it has made it that much more difficult to manage.

Evo: How does that shift in philosophy around educating students about the options available to them start to play into the opportunity to scale access to education and therefore drive the attainment rate?

MS: One of the things that distinguishes the MJ Foster Promise Program from others across the country is that short-term training programs are eligible. It also throws the doors open and says, “21 years and over, nonviolent felons: we’re trying to provide as much access as possible, but we’re also providing access to only in-demand programs.” Five career pathways. We’re going to ensure that people get the credentials that will have the greatest value to them. We also added a lifetime account. In other words, you have $3,200 for a year and you have $6,400 for a lifetime. The message that gesture sends is, education is not a one-shot deal. Education is iterative. Education requires that you come back and gain additional skills along the way. All of those are really important elements of the promise program, that speak to the needs of this economy  and ultimately are going to be more prevalent across time.

Evo: How are you going to afford these kinds of programs?

MS: It’s been a really curious six-year journey in telling the story. We began this conversation in 2015, with a discussion with our legislative delegation demonstrating to them what happens to someone who is a net-taker from the state of Louisiana. These are folks who are on some type of subsidy from the state, be it healthcare, prison….We built into this bill, and now law a requirement that every year the legislature receives a report on who received the award, how much they received, if they completed, where they went to work and, perhaps most importantly, how much they paid in taxes? That tax contribution becomes the question of Louisiana’s community and technical colleges giving back to the state. It’s not a question of where the money comes from. We are generating our own revenue to sustain this program.

We can now invest in people who will be able to contribute to a tax base that helps us support programs like the merit-based aid program. We cap the program purposely at $10.5 million annually—not because we believe that’s the top end of the need, but because we fully recognize that at the end of this first couple of years, you will not be able to function in Louisiana without an MJ Foster Promise Program. It is that important to the future of our people and the future of our state.

Evo: What advice do you have for other leaders, especially of non-degree programs, trying to create more opportunities for access for their learners?

MS: First and foremost, identify the problem. This is a demographic problem. You need to understand your people, the needs they have. Then secondly, make sure that the programs you’re offering that group of students are directly tied to the economy. Again, I think there’s a clear need to understand the demand and the need out there. Then the third piece is cutting through registration BS. For many students, if you get to the point of sitting in a seat, we ought to give you a degree because you’ve navigated hassles that you should have never had to navigate.

Get the student through the classroom. Remember this: Our responsibility is not about all of the hurdles we put in front of students. Our responsibility is teaching and learning. If we can get ourselves to that point and get out of the way of many of these students, I think we will be shocked at the level of ability and success that these students will have in the classroom. Make sure that you give them the support that they need. This group is motivated. They have kids at home depending upon them. They have bills and responsibilities. I’ve got to believe that the success rate of that adult population is going to be driven, not so much by what we do as colleges, but by putting them in an environment where they see the future right there in front of them.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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