Monday, August 6, 2018

The Role of Community Colleges in Economic Development

By Marilee Petranovich

Community colleges play a very important function in improving the lives of students, and do this through the fulfillment of multiple roles such as technical skill educators, transfer centers, certificate and degree providers and career developers.  Today, these same two-year institutions are also being called upon to be directly involved in economic development efforts within their communities.  Not only are colleges such as UNM-Gallup involved in the business of educating students, but also in meeting the needs of industry and the local economy.

Traditionally, community colleges have been dedicated to the conventional role of serving underrepresented populations by preparing students to enter directly into the workforce or transferring to a four-year institution for completion of a baccalaureate degree.  While still involved in this life-enhancing work, two-year colleges are now also keeping a close eye on community needs and asking themselves what skills employers and students are ranking as most important.  Program development or enhancement requires a close analysis to determine if there are jobs for students upon completion. 

In this role as a partner in economic development, college administrators must look at their ability to permanently improve students’ lives for their own benefit and that of society.   There are several ways providers of higher education can fulfill this need.  Through contract training, colleges can create individualized programs for very specific industry skills.  The trainings can be customized both in content and in delivery modes and focus on very specialized job skills.

Small business development is another response to the economic needs of a community.  The UNM-Gallup Small Business Development Center is at the forefront of business creation and training.  As many as one-third of community colleges sponsor a Small Business Development Center as part of their campus education plan.  Professional assistance in the form of business plan development, workshops and financial assistance provides a supportive environment for entrepreneurial success.  Integration of these new businesses adds diversification to the economy, provides employment opportunities and increases the availability of goods and services within communities.

Economic development planning offers another avenue for community colleges to engage in broad and industry-specific research and information dissemination.  Through the process of environmental scanning, colleges can look for trends, investigate emerging work practices and monitor the economic landscape.  Some community colleges go so far as to be actively involved in policy analysis and development.  Successful program improvement is dependent on decision-makers keeping an eye on predictive market indicators and making academic adjustments as needed.

Of course, one of the strongest ways community colleges can contribute to economic development is by producing graduates who are job-ready in industries that are primed to accept these new workers.  Offering opportunities to succeed in college equates to increased ways for trained workers to enter seamlessly into the labor force.  The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce notes that by the year 2020, 65% of jobs in the United States will require some form of post-secondary education in the form of a degree or earned credential.   This puts the responsibility on institutions of higher education to be aware of industry trends, workforce demands and specific employer requirements, possibly years in advance of the actual need.

There is a direct correlation between education attainment and income earning potential and this relationship is key to increasing economic prosperity.   According to the United States Census Bureau, over the course of an adult’s working life, high school graduates earn $1.2 million versus $1.6 million for associate degree recipients which translates into a difference of $400,000 over the course of the degree holder’s career.  Additionally, certificate and degree holders earn entry salaries that are approximately 20% higher than those entering the workforce with just a high school diploma.

Economic development within communities is the result of strong collaborations between multiple organizations, civic leaders and educational systems.  Community colleges can be one of the important players in this process.  Through their mission of affordability and open access, community colleges can collaborate to develop relevant programs, inform leaders and fill employment shortfalls that help drive sustainable economic growth and expansion.  In the words of Atlantic columnist James Fallows, “Community colleges are the main exception, potentially offering a connection to high-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage.”

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