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Opening Community College Doors to a 60-Year Curriculum

The 60-year curriculum opens doors for students who may not have ever thought of themselves as students. In the ever-accelerating world of work, employers rely on higher ed to upskill and train their current workers as much as grads entering the workforce.

A traditional curriculum isn’t going to cut it anymore for today’s modern learners. Instead, by providing lifelong learning, students will be able to come to an institution and take the programming they need in the moment, no matter what stage of life they are in. In this interview, Charles Collins discusses the importance of a 60-year curriculum, how community colleges play a role in implementing it and the impact it can have on the community.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed leaders to focus on a 60-year curriculum?

Charles Collins (CC): Consumer behavior in the past decade has changed significantly, and it only continues to do so. People want individualized learning options. They are looking for specific training geared toward their particular situation at a particular time.

It’s like when we learned about just-in-time and competitive manufacturing in the ’90s. Organizations needed raw materials at a specific time, made a product out of them and shipped it out. In this era of higher ed, people need just-in-time education and training, and that 60-year curriculum feeds into consumer behavior.

Evo: Why are community colleges well suited to capture and execute on this? 

CC: Community colleges are an American invention. They were set up to capture that short-term educational pathway. When they came into existence in the U.S., they were an entry point into four-year colleges. As they’ve evolved into the 21st century, they’ve become institutions with the mindset of pivoting to changing occupational skill needs in the contemporary economy. This makes them efficient and maneuverable at responding to changing consumer behavior and skillsets.

In Maine, we’ve evolved along with the rest of the country. Our technical colleges offering specific trades training and career-based preparation became community colleges with a transfer option. It’s the opposite of how typical community colleges are modelled. We added the transfer degree in 2003, which enhanced the institution’s technical and occupational offerings. It’s allowed us to be a favorable option for people who aren’t sure of their career path. Opening our doors to a wider demographic has seen huge benefits.

Evo: What are some challenges that come with implementing a 60-year curriculum?

CC: It comes down to setting up your infrastructure to be iterative in the way you develop programs at a quicker pace. We have advisory councils for traditional programming to ensure faculty are teaching the right information and skillsets to meet workplace needs. There’s a constant feedback loop going on there. Most employers are busy, so we need to meet them where they are and find ways to keep the feedback loop working.

Evo: What are some best practices to attract and retain learners for the long term?

CC: The idea of developing the Maine Workforce Development Compact (the compact) is a great step forward. It’s an agreement we set up with companies throughout Maine that allows us to connect on a deeper level about the work we’re all doing. With an agreement in place, we can communicate our intention to the employers, articulate that we are here to support workforce development goals. Since the center’s inception in January of 2022, over 1100 employers and trade associations have signed up, representing over 250,000 working people in the state of Maine—about a third of our working population. Companies are willing to engage with us in various capacities, be it surveys, conversations, advice, etc. It’s been a strategy and notion to find a way to connect on a regular basis. Ultimately, we’re building trust with industry sectors and employers.

Evo: What impact will this shift in strategic planning have on the institution and its community?

CC: Community colleges can really serve as an anchor tenant to bring in state resources, private foundation funding and employers together in a hub. We’re able to make connections quickly with businesses of any size, so we’re able to meet all needs in the area. The long-term goal for MCCS is for the state and private sector to rely on us, so they don’t have to go to a dozen organizations to figure out where training and professional development resources are.   

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the 60-year curriculum or the work Maine Community College System is doing?

CC: Working within the Maine Community College System allows us to support the community college regional efforts and serve as a hub to connect all the resources individual colleges offer. This becomes critical to responding to an employer or student need—there isn’t a wrong door.
We are engaged in creating pathways that allow the various skill development options and formal credentials to align. We want to help connect the dots for people who may not know where exactly they want to go.

Evo: How can higher ed leaders start this conversation at their own institution to start blurring the lines and become more collaborative?

CC: From a community college system level, our structure really isn’t different than others’. Our campuses serve a region of the state. Start with conversations within your system or college on how short-term skill offerings align with the more formal credential options. Include employers in your discussions and offer a small example of industry sector pathways. With those in place, measure outcomes, tweak your delivery or curriculum as needed based on a student and employer feedback loop, then repeat.

Currently, we meet monthly with workforce deans and staff to continue these conversations. No matter what part of the state you’re in, we can see what everyone is doing for their industry partners. This way, people can learn from others or step in where they know they can help. It’s a very collaborative environment.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.