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The Power of Enrichment: Fueling Community Engagement

Providing programs that allow all learners to explore their interests boosts a postsecondary institution’s community engagement and generates necessary revenue. 

At Harper College, we take our integration within the community seriously. In the spring I attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting to make a presentation on what Harper College can offer the community beyond for-credit classes. I was struck by the question-and-answer session. They wanted to know about our enrichment classes. One wanted to take guitar lessons. Another had taken pottery classes. Wine tasting was another discussion. The whole group had engaged in fundraising for our job skills training program for students with intellectual disabilities. I might have walked into the meeting thinking they would want to know about career upskilling or contract training opportunities, but I left reminded that enrichment opportunities are in demand.

Community colleges across North America have recognized the responsibility to offer high-quality education to constituents across all age groups and backgrounds. Our Continuing Education (CE) programs start with programs for kids and teens, including a popular summer kids’ college, and all the way to programs for older adults. It is critical that we react quickly to emerging needs and meet them as they develop.

We have a long history of offering personal interest classes. This fall, we are seeing a serious boom in the popularity of home improvement DIY classes. Woodworking, electrical repair and plumbing classes are filling, as people want to develop their own skill set in these areas. Pottery, bronze casting and jewelry classes have maintained solid enrollment over a long period of time. Yoga continues to be in demand. Our music program is thriving by offering classes, private lessons and most importantly ensembles that meet people’s needs. Our World Music Ensemble and Back Porch Review (focusing on pre-1950s folk music) have enjoyed great success. Ensembles are designed to welcome students with wide-ranging abilities. We welcome beginners as well as advanced students. We also recognize that our ensembles should include all the music styles people want to play. Jazz, blues, folk, country, rock and a variety of music from around the world find their way to our stages, as our students study both their instruments and the music that captures their imagination.

While language programs are struggling nationally, we have maintained a Continuing Education language program that focuses on conversational skills. We see people who want to speak Spanish in the workplace, but we also see people who want to learn Italian or German or Spanish or Japanese for their travels.

Youth programs meet the critical need to expose young students to college-style learning. Our InZone program, which is now over 20 years old, runs for ten weeks during the summer offering high-quality education to those aged 6 to 14. Perhaps as important as education is that we are inspiring youth to pursue postsecondary education when it is their time. Summer youth camps utilize all the campus facilities our undergraduate students use. It is common that, at the end of a student’s first two-week session, to find them walking around with new friends as if they own the campus. Those summer programs remove a lot of the mystery about what college is like.

Obviously, we don’t ignore career development. We have become part of Harper College’s Innovation Accelerator program, which seeks to rapidly develop and implement new areas of study that newly developing areas of the job market are demanding. While this connection to industry helps credit programs take shape faster with the help of development funds, CE is positioned to respond faster to real-time needs. We initiated the first AI program at the college while credit curriculum went through the approval process. We have offered an aviation ground school for many years, so people could explore a potential career in that industry. As the college now develops majors in the aviation field, CE stands as a feeder for those programs.

Current discussion on CE’s relevance focuses on workforce needs for career exploration, upskilling and awarding professional CEUs to keep licensing current. We discuss the value of certifications and badges. These are critical areas for all CE departments. However, the presence of a strong personal interest program helps community members explore their own areas of interest and generates much-needed revenue for a cost-recovery-based operation. Perhaps most importantly, it allows our community college to remain engaged with a wide spectrum of community members. As 2024 approaches, it may be time to recommit to your community’s personal interests.