Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
So far, we’ve seen the COVID-19 crisis push institutions beyond their comfort zones. Many are aware of the anxieties of rapidly changing course, but the pandemic has brought on a lot of positive progress. It pushed traditional institutions to adapt to a more untraditional model that is especially successful in retaining enrollments in time of a recession. This is the chance for community colleges to get their hands dirty and help drive people into the workforce while helping their community. In this interview, Ian Roark discusses the community college infrastructure as a result of the pandemic, what’s instore for a new normal and how workforce development needs to change to deliver the best learner outcome.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What’s been going on at Pima Community College and how you guys have adapted to the changes?
Ian Roark (IR): At a broad level, we had to move many classes that were being offered face-to-face online along with many of our student services. We already had an increasing number of online courses and virtual student services, but the pace at which we had to make everything available was very challenging for everybody involved. Thanks to the diligence of our faculty and staff, we made it through to the other side.
Our biggest challenge lies in having to pause our workforce-related and technical courses because we have not been able to find a suitable alternative. When we are able to reach that point, we can work to deliver the final portions of career technical education programs that need a face-to-face interaction, lab experience or work-based learning experience.
Evo: How has this shift impacted the infrastructure of the institution?
IR: Under the leadership of our chancellor Lee Lambert, we were already challenging the entire organization to move more services and content to a virtual format and explore how to do it. If it can be done on the work site through work-based learning, then we need to move in that direction as well.
We need to have the best infrastructure possible in place to deliver those experiential labs in technical, scientific, music and fine arts areas that really demand a physical presence. Our center of excellence has been investing to create a physical infrastructure with labs, opens spaces and mixed-discipline technical field lab areas.
We were partially there, with 30% of Pima’s offerings already online. Equally, we’ve been focusing on what we call the “working learner.” As we are still dedicated to serving the needs of our high school students, an increasing number of institutions are maximizing dual enrollment opportunities at the K-12 level. This way, students and families save money on the front end and can come to Pima to complete their certificate or degree without any loss of matriculation when they graduate from high school.
Looking at our data, many people who aren’t enrolled in a technical or academic dual credit program in high school often enter the labor market receiving very low wages. They meander around that market for about a decade and then come back as working learner as they look to retool and reskill with the goal of earning more.
Evo: What were some of the projects and changes that you guys see as central to the future of your work?
IR: We’ve been working on massively integrating up-skilling opportunities through non-credit formats into our programs of study. Those are the trends that we already saw and the reasons why larger forces–changing policies and a difficult fiscal environment for community colleges–was a driver. Another driver was the impact of automation in the fourth industrial revolution and how it has been changing work and education.
We belong to the concept of the birth theory. In Pima County, we’ve seen this since the great recession. Natural birth rates have declined significantly, and we don’t have as many young people in the “pipeline” as we used to, both from a workforce perspective or from the business model perspective the college has. That steady stream of high school graduates is shrinking just by natural birth decline alone.
That’s why we were making these changes, and when this happened, it became an immediate shock to the system and to the community. But it also became very evident that each and every single one of the touch points that we were already working on would be a necessary part of the solution for moving our community out of the impending economic decline.
Even in our technical and workforce training programs, it’s about modularizing coursework to provide just in-time-training for our community in a hybrid fashion. We’re working with faculty to push ourselves to adapt to this new format. Let’s go ahead and improve upon that online quality. Then, when students come back to campus, their experience is of the highest quality. We’re maximizing physical and virtual time, even in technical education–and this has been widely accepted. This crisis was the catalyst for opening our eyes to how needed these reforms were.
Evo: How do you plan to help those looking to upskill and reskill as we head into a recession?
IR: Eight of ten community college districts partnered with us to implement the Jobs for the Future Google IT certification in the state of Arizona as part of Google’s Jobs for the Future nationwide program. And it can all be done virtually. At Pima, we’re implementing it in a non-credit fashion and through our learning platform. This way, a virtual learner in a non-credit setting is also going to have virtual wraparound support and guidance through our D2L platform.
It’s already listed on our workforce system’s eligible training provider list, which is intended for working learners wanted to upskill or change careers into IT from home. Then, through Prior Learning Assessment, that non-credit learning and certificate will stack onto our entry-level IT and cyber security certifications, if they want to continue in that direction.
Now, with this crisis, we saw that that was the paradigm we wanted to adopt across the board for as many programs as possible. It turned into a good template for us to work from. If our business model is predicated on the economy being in a bad condition, then that business model needs to be fundamentally remade. We’ve been using this moment to get clear-eyed about which programs we’re offering and why. Do they lead to employment in the sectors we know are going to develop our community and provide better jobs? Are they leading to the actual wages that our graduates are going to need, especially in this time of recession and economic doubt?
Evo: How does the role of workforce development need to change to make sure that college wide there is this laser focus on learner outcome?
IR: When we’re always responding to business and industry needs, we’re always one step behind. We have to be predicting where industry is going by partnering with industry thought leaders so that we’re ready whenever the curve shifts and remain adaptable and flexible throughout the process.
We need to take the same approach with economic and community development. It’s necessary that we continue to be responsive to immediate needs, but community colleges need to overtly help focus the conversation around. We have to seriously think about the real economic outcomes for the people who we educate and train.
At the end of the day, we’re stewards of taxpayer dollars, so it behooves us to be in tune with not only the business community but also workforce development leaders, economic development leaders and government officials who want to help our community move forward. Sometimes that means looking at traditional programs in the community–traditional pathways or employment fields that may be long-standing sectors. We still need to support and serve them but with the goal of better informing our students and stakeholders about all of their opportunities. This way, we’re not inadvertently trapping people into certain areas of the economy based on preconceived notions of skills or ability.
It ensures that we make our students as marketable as possible, so that there is a natural inclination to want to pay them more in the workforce. What we’ve seen in our programs is that employers want to pay more for highly trained and marketable college grads. If they don’t, students will leave their communities for somewhere that will pay that extra bit of money. Our students know their value and are not deterred by mobility in making their career decisions.
Evo: Do you have any advice on how leaders of workforce development divisions can start to change that paradigm and become more integrated at a strategic level with the operations of the college itself?
IR: Workforce development is the role of the whole college, not that of one specific unit. There is a specific team charged with being in tune with workforce and economic development priorities as well as the needs of specific sectors and employers. However, we have been allowed to work cross functionally in what have normally been organized as traditionally academic standalone areas as well and have really moved the needle in breaking down those silos.
The vast majority of non-credit offerings in our organization are taught by full-time and adjunct faculty. We’ve built in cost or pricing incentives that help operations. Our academic units realized that this non-credit or workforce unit is not competition.
My advice to workforce leaders as well as college CEOs is to really look at workforce development team’s position within the organization. If academic units view it as competing for revenue and students, they won’t partner with it. You have to remove those on the ground incentives and disincentives that position the workforce team as an internal competitor and strategic leader in these conversations.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the renewed importance of taking this element of the community college mission seriously in a time of recession?
IR: What this activity allows all of us to do is come back to the core of what our institutions are all about. It’s about the individual’s economic empowerment while improving our community to be the best version of itself. These challenging times are when we have to remember that people are hurting. We have small businesses that have been completely wiped out and friends and family members who have lost their jobs.
All of the programs that we implement don’t matter if there is no heart behind them. A humanitarian approach has to be behind an institution’s decision-making, and, from there, recognize past the decisions that have hindered people from climbing the economic ladder. You need to be honest about that and know when to take the bold steps to reshape our organizations to empower people in our community.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 24, 2020.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students