More than Just Degree Completion: The Hard-to-Measure Impact of Community Colleges on the Local Economy

The EvoLLLution | More than Just Degree Completion: The Hard-to-Measure Impact of Community Colleges on the Local Economy
Community colleges’ impact on their local economies go well beyond degrees conferred. Their capacity to build strong relationships creates vast opportunities to contribute to economic and social growth.

How do community colleges contribute to the economic growth of the communities they serve?  How do we measure the impact of those contributions when looking at the local economy?

These are some of the toughest questions to answer when looking at the expanding role of community colleges in 2020 and beyond. But these are the questions that we must answer as the educational and workforce landscape continues to shift across the United States.

At the college level, we look at different measures to determine success, including the number of students who enroll, graduate and are employed after graduation, all of which are part of evolving performance-based funding models.  Aside from these, some cities use their own measures to determine the impact of community college contributions on the economic development of the community.  Those contributions include the employment of hundreds and sometimes thousands of community members for the day-to-day operations of the institution, as well as the number of community members who complete certificate and degree programs for the current workforce.  Regardless of the measures used, we cannot deny that community colleges play a vital role in the income generation of residents and the overall economic development of communities.

Preparing Community Members for the Workforce

The most commonly discussed community college contribution is the actual preparation of community members for today’s workforce.  Starting early in the education pathway, community colleges partner with K-12 institutions to enhance the bridge to higher education by streamlining curriculum, enhancing academic and career focused engagement with K-12 students, and offering college credit opportunities for middle and high school students.

After K-12, community colleges offer a vast array of certificate and associate degree programs. In some states even bachelor’s degree programs are designed to meet local workforce needs.  Community colleges look beyond just the necessary industry knowledge and skills to provide students with fundamental skills (e.g., writing and speaking skills) and soft skills (e.g., teamwork, problem-solving, and time management). These are necessary for success in the workplace and in bachelor and graduate programs at other institutions.

In addition to these skills, community colleges take the lead in providing wraparound services to help their students meet their educational and career goals.  Many of these initiatives are funded through grants or private funders.  Some schools even partner with non-profit organizations such as Single Stop USA to provide additional services such as benefits enrollment assistance, financial coaching and free tax preparation, helping not just the student but also the student’s family improve its economic position within the community.

With this winning combination of K-12 partnerships, short-term and long-term degrees along with the wraparound services to maximize student success, community colleges have and will continue to play a vital role in income generation and economic development of communities.  However, there are additional contributions that are not discussed often but also play a significant role in the overall economic landscape of the community.

Partnering with Companies and Industries

Through strategic partnerships with potential new companies and industries, community colleges can bring new workforce opportunities to the community and create the necessary industry certifications and programs. This will help community members prepare for those new competitive jobs.  For already existing companies and industries, community colleges can create professional development programs for sustained growth.  For example, a cruise line, airline, restaurant or hotel chain might work with the community college to create professional development workshops in the areas of beverage and food service, customer service and new technologies, while other companies might turn to the community college for leadership development and succession planning activities.

With their flexible structure, community colleges can develop credit and non-credit (continuing education) programs with tailored services and pricing to meet the community and industry needs with the ability to offer these programs at any location or virtually.

Supporting the Entrepreneurial Landscape

Communities are not just made up of large corporations and organizations, but also of dozens, hundreds and sometimes thousands of micro and small businesses that make up a significant portion (sometimes over 50%) of the local economy.  Community colleges can play a significant role in helping sustain these local micro and small businesses and help them plan for continued success via non-credit programs that support the use of new technologies, marketing strategies (e.g., websites, social media, blogs, or press releases) and business activities such as bookkeeping and accounting.

Beyond the existing micro and small businesses, communities have new entrepreneurial enterprises every year that could be supported by community colleges.  Colleges are infusing entrepreneurial skillsets in their curriculum and helping students develop an entrepreneurial mindset.  Many community colleges have developed entrepreneurship programs such as the Entrepreneur’s Business Plan “Boot Camp” at Northern Essex Community College, and others have developed physical hubs such as Miami Dade College’s Idea Center which helps entrepreneurs at any stage of the process from ideation to the scaling up of existing businesses.  Community colleges can turn to the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) if they are seeking additional guidance for becoming part of the entrepreneurial fabric of the community.

Paving a New Future for Community Colleges

Community colleges clearly have been active players in the economic development of the communities they serve.  As workforce and community needs change, community colleges have demonstrated their nimbleness in meeting the changing needs of the community but must continue evolving to meet other existing and upcoming needs.  Today we have a better understanding of community college contributions that drive economic development, but we are still struggling to create and articulate consistent contributions and to identify ways of measuring the impact of those contributions at the college and community levels.

When looking at 2020 and beyond, community colleges can improve their impact on the local economy via a strengthened collaborative and reciprocal relationship, which includes having a seat at the community table for economic development work and allowing the community to have a seat at the college table via critical committees and boards.  Then, together they can create consistent, meaningful and sustainable contributions to the economic development of the community and ways of measuring the impact of those contributions.

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