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The Evolving World of Community Colleges: Market Position, Competition and the Future

The EvoLLLution | The Evolving World of Community Colleges: Market Position, Competition and the Future
By adhering to their fundamental community-oriented mandate while proactively responding to demographic and economic trends, community colleges can position themselves for sustainability in a changing marketplace.
Like their university counterparts, community colleges are facing an uncertain future: lower enrollments, changing student demographics and increased competition from universities looking to grow their share of workforce development programming are prompting community college leaders to look to the future of their institutions and develop strategic responses to the challenges of tomorrow. In his role as Vice President of Workforce Development at Pima Community College, Ian Roark grapples with these questions every day. In this interview, Roark outlines the trends that are changing the nature of community college education, and discusses how Pima Community College is innovating to meet the workforce-oriented needs of its learners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few key trends that community college leaders need to be aware of?

Ian Roark (IR): Among the most pervasive and impactful trends is the well-documented decline in community college enrollments, which has been ongoing since the long recovery following the Great Recession. Our industry often subscribes to the notion that community college enrollment is inversely tied to the business cycles of the American economy: In times of great opportunity for working Americans, community college enrollment predictably declines. We tend to cling to this notion as if it must continue to be this way; as if it’s immutable.

While the business cycle is one factor among many in our enrollment patterns, it may be counterproductive for community college leadership to say that a bad economy is good for community college enrollment—and conversely, to blame low enrollments on a booming economy. If enrollment, which is key to our institutional business models and sustainability, is tied to the economics of the country being bad, then we have to question the fundamental viability of our business model. As leaders, we should strive to decouple our fiscal sustainability from weaknesses in the American business cycle and improve upon what makes community colleges distinct and attractive to those we serve.  Equally, we have to own the issue of enrollment loss and truly address the reasons for our retention and completion issues, which are equal factors in enrollment loss.

A second trend that we need to keep in mind is the impact of artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT) and automation. That is, we need to address the notion that, “The robots are coming!” A recent study from the McKinsey Global Institute stated that 30 percent of all Americans could be displaced by advanced technologies by 2030. We’re almost at 2020, so this is not far off. As educators, we need to understand the impact of technology on the workforce and on our economies, and be able to retrain people for the jobs that will be created as a result of these new technologies. We also need to implement systems adept enough to keep pace with the need for mass reskilling.

A while back, the mantra of community college leaders was that we needed to be “responsive” to the needs of the community and our local industries. While necessary in the present, that attitude in isolation is a misstep: If we’re only responsive, we’re always a step behind. It’s time for our industry to be one step ahead. We need to be a part of the conversation about what these workplaces and economies are going to look like in the future, and develop our processes, procedures, and programs to meet those future opportunities and challenges before they manifest.

Evo: What are the challenges facing two-year colleges specifically?

IR: Whether it’s issues of wage inequality by race, age, gender, or ethnicity; issues of immigration and migration; or issues of ideological disputes that continue to cause division and polarization throughout our society, I believe the community colleges are the best hope for our communities moving forward. We serve as the thread that weaves all of our various constituencies together around the united goals of economic opportunity, prosperity and equity.

That said, we are currently trying to accomplish these goals with a “shopping mall” mentality. As you’ll no doubt have noticed, big box stores are closing up left and right because it’s becoming an antiquated model. People are shying away from impersonal and mass-consumer service—they want customized, personalized experiences. If I want to buy a suit, I no longer have to go to the mall: I can have somebody take a picture of me on my phone, and get a better-made, better-fitting suit without leaving my house. The business model has changed, and shopping malls are becoming obsolete.

We need to take that into consideration if we want to avoid obsolescence ourselves. If we continue to think of our “value add” as the programs we’ve always offered and the buildings we’ve always had, then we’re going end up like shopping malls. We are going to lose enrollments. We have to look at how we can add value to our communities, but not by adhering to the same models that we’ve always relied on.

Sometimes we lay the blame for our inability to change on what the government agencies and our accreditors allow us to do or not to do. On the one hand, the accreditation system is valuable because it’s a peer-driven model. On the other, we bemoan it because it doesn’t allow us to make changes rapidly. Frankly, we need to be holding ourselves more accountable for pushing change onto the accrediting bodies. If they are truly peer-review models, then we are seeing the reflections of ourselves in what we see as the rules and processes that are slow to change.

Community colleges across the United States are facing funding challenges, both at the state and federal levels. Many states see the value of investing heavily in their community college systems, but others don’t. Without getting involved in partisan debates, we also have to demonstrate our value to political and economic leaders.

Evo: As customers’ expectations shift from automated to customized service, what does that mean in terms of their expectations of the service they expect to receive from postsecondary institutions?

IR: Ultimately, it’s going to come down to whether or not the experiences that students have with us add value to their lives. Oftentimes, that comes down to the economic return on investment: “What is my gross and net income compared to my gross and net debt based on the education that I received?”  But increasingly, it comes down to whether or not we helped people find their purpose: “Did my experience at my community college add value to my life and help me find purpose in my community?”  We will have fully realized our mission as community colleges when the resounding answer is, “Yes!”

Students expect personalization and authenticity, but community colleges are traditionally built on a one-size-fits-all strategy. We build programs and systems that are predicated on the past notion that the majority of our students are coming to us right out of high school and can attend our institutions full-time, and that the world revolves around a semester-based academic schedule. The reality is that the vast majority of our students are not of that age group. They’re working adults and they need customization—not out of a sense of entitlement, but because their lives are complex. Customization is about access—something we educators often value from a social justice standpoint—and the customer satisfaction that comes from it is an added bonus. We should be pursuing these technologies and modalities with gusto because they provide students with greater access to the programs and services that we provide. These tools and technologies should be viewed as a bridge to greater access to the education people want, need and deserve.

Evo: People aren’t looking at higher education as a “single stop” anymore: success in today’s labor market requires individuals to return to college or university as a way of gaining the skills they need to keep up with industrial and technological changes. How do two-year colleges fit into this lifelong learning ecosystem?

IR: Most community colleges already have many robust offerings for lifelong learners, but we need to make sure that those offerings are aligned with the needs of the community. Instead of offering the same programs over and over, we need to change the menu as needed to meet the evolving needs of our students and the workforce.

At Pima Community College, we are aligning the types of lifelong learning we can provide through our academic and technical disciplines to community needs. We’re no longer viewing our programs and our faculty as solely focused on offering certificates and degrees, and leaving everything else to a continuing education unit. We’re funneling all of our activities through the same set of faculty and adjunct faculty that run the traditional programs, and working with industry partners to create robust, workforce-oriented offerings throughout the organization.

For example, Caterpillar’s Surface Mining & Technology Division came to us with an interesting problem, which was that they were hiring lots of well-educated engineers who were very good at math and physics, but were not able to effectively interface with the technicians they worked with on a daily basis. The engineer would design a solution in a lab, and then the technician working on it would say, “That’s a great solution, but you forgot to take into consideration that my arm will not fit through that hole in order to make the repair.”  Extrapolated across the business, this was costing Caterpillar a lot of money.

These engineers are already highly educated folks, but they needed a better understanding of how their work fit into the broader picture. In order to meet this challenge, Caterpillar’s engineers are now coming to Pima Community College for training in metallurgy, machine technology and welding processes. They will actually have to weld and machine, which will allow them to see the impact of their theoretical work in an actual applied setting.

That’s the type of flexibility and value that community colleges can add as we shift into true lifelong learning.

Evo: Do you see some of the lessons that you’re learning by building out this program for Caterpillar feed back into workforce development programming for more traditional learners?

IR: Usually, something like the Caterpillar project would go to the unit that provides customized training, but we decided to approach it as a trial balloon for creating innovative institutional change across the college. We brought in our dean of science, our engineering faculty, and a couple of industry partners who own aerospace and defense engineering firms to partner with our continuing education unit so that they could help us develop a truly responsive, workforce-oriented program while maintaining high academic standards.

For us, the Caterpillar project is the first step in a process of innovating our programs toward blurring the distinction between academic and technical education (categories we in higher education created). We plan to extrapolate this type of framework to every discipline across the college. Working with our faculty and industry partners, we will be able to move beyond just offering traditional certificates and degrees in many disciplines.

Evo: What are some of the common obstacles to building a program in collaboration with more traditional faculties?

IR: One obstacle is our slowness in moving beyond how things have always been done. It’s amazing to me that, in the approximately 1,200 community colleges in the United States, we all do the same things. We dichotomize academics and technical education. We distinguish credit from non-credit learning. We bifurcate in-person classes from online classes.

In short, we like everything to be in neat little categories, but the reality is that life is not categorical. So, if we’re preparing people for real life, maybe we shouldn’t be so categorical either. The reason the Caterpillar model is so effective is that two of the engineers from Caterpillar who helped us design the curriculum came from different backgrounds: One was a former welder, and the other was a former machinist. Sometimes it’s about breaking down the barriers between the engineers and the machinists, between academic and technical education. Sometimes, it’s just about finding the right people and having them help us better communicate our message.

Evo: A lot of university programming is moving into the skills and workforce development area—that is, programming that would typically be thought of as belonging to two-year colleges. How are community and technical colleges being affected by this increase in workforce-directed programming at four-year institutions?

IR: It’s definitely having an impact. Pragmatically, a lot of the offerings that our university counterparts are offering in this space are priced to a different market. For instance, we have offered IT bootcamps at half of the cost of some of our university counterparts.

While we’re covering the same disciplines, we’re actually marketing to a different clientele. I recently enrolled in an executive leadership training program at the University of Arizona (which was excellent) and saw an opportunity to offer similar leadership programming at Pima. Our program isn’t for executives at larger companies, but we can serve the small- and medium-sized businesses that comprise the majority of the economy of Tucson. Ninety percent of the people in Tucson are employed by somebody who owns a small business. So, our workforce team developed a suitable leadership training program for the small business owner who may not be able to afford or have the time to go to similar training at the university.

I look at universities moving into workforce development programming not as a threat, but as an opportunity for community colleges to examine what we’re doing and make it better. Moreover, when universities and community colleges can partner in these endeavors, we can bring tremendous power to solving the problem. Universities can bring scalability, high-level expertise, and enterprise-thinking to the table, and community colleges can bring access, flexibility and personalization.

Evo: What are some of the differentiating aspects that two-year colleges can bring to the table to compete with universities in this space?

IR: Community colleges must rely on the first word of our industry: community. Community colleges have a unique ability to represent and serve the diverse needs of the community. We’re the ones with the adult education programs that serve refugees or those needing English language skills. We provide the pathways for adults to get their high school diploma. We serve those who are in prison and need education so that they don’t recidivate.

We’re also the ones offering true, genuine partnerships and dual enrollment with our high school feeder programs, both in academics and in technical education. We’re serving lifelong learners who are over the age of 55 through programs like the AARP 50 Plus Back to Work program. We’ve established relationships in each corner of the communities that we serve and have the ability to connect through community groups, non-profits and public workforce systems. Community colleges serve the diverse constituencies that comprise the mosaic of our communities at an authentic and personal level, and that is what differentiates us the most.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how community colleges are evolving, not just to meet the needs of the emerging and future workforce, but also to compete and stay relevant within the changing postsecondary ecosystem?

IR: We need to be aware of the changes we need to make to be ahead of the curve, but at the same time we can’t lose touch with the core of who we are. Our values as community colleges and community college leaders should not change, but the way in which we deliver those values to the community absolutely has to. We should be careful not to chase every new trend, but be very discerning as to which elements of change we should pursue. In everything that we do, we must approach change in ways that add value to those we serve.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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