Co-hosted by Indiana Philanthropy Alliance, "Supporting Exceptional Community Colleges" took place on April 29-30 in Indianapolis.
Community colleges offer one of the most underutilized investment opportunities for funders. Across the country, a small handful are upending the status quo by developing new ways to equip their communities to meet the needs of today’s labor markets. This event explored how funders can support the growth and development of exceptional community colleges.
Jo Kwong, Director of Economic Opportunity Programs, The Philanthropy Roundtable
Revving the Economic Mobility Engine
Philanthropists Examine Their Role in Supporting Innovative Community Colleges at Roundtable Conference
“Why are community colleges still viewed as second best? Why are they not valued for what they actually provide?”
Jo Kwong, director of economic opportunity at The Philanthropy Roundtable, asked these questions of attendees of The Philanthropy Roundtable’s April 29-30 conference in Indianapolis, Indiana—Supporting Exceptional Community Colleges: How Philanthropy Can Help.
Industry in America is rapidly changing. Upheavals in technology and the labor market are on the horizon, and the value proposition on which higher education has long depended is no longer viable in this emerging landscape.
Recent years have seen a dramatic rise in the value of career and technical colleges. Far from second rate, community colleges are playing an integral role in equipping communities, businesses, and students for the workforce of tomorrow, and offer valuable investment opportunities for funders.
Changing the Offering
Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College, and Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS), kicked off the conference with a discussion of the new value proposition for higher education.
To understand the new, it’s first important to understand the old. The traditional four-year college pathway was built, Shugart said, on five critical assumptions.
First, the idea that college is a destination. “Not only are you coming here for the label,” Shugart said, “you’re here for the lifestyle we promise beyond here and the lifestyle we promise while you’re here.” Second, that excellence is equated with exclusivity and exclusivity is correlated to expensiveness. Third, that completion rates are inconsistent and correlated heavily with the socioeconomic tier the college serves.
Fourth, Shugart said, “it’s going to take a long time.” And fifth, that despite all of the rhetoric, there is no true promise of economic mobility, particularly for the bottom quartile.
The value proposition that community colleges are now putting forth upends these assumptions. For attendees of community colleges, education isn’t a destination—it’s a bridge. “Make the bridge a bridge,” said Shugart, “and let the destination be the future beyond the bridge that students are seeing.”
Community colleges also place a focus on inclusivity, and the short, intensive experiences that they offer are facilitating improved completion rates. As a result, they are having an enormous impact on economic motility, ushering in an era of opportunity particularly for the bottom socioeconomic quartile.
The emerging value proposition is also debunking myths about the barriers to success. People often assume, said Sullivan, that low completion rates are the result of students without the brainpower to handle the workload. In fact, it has little to do with their abilities. “It’s not the fractions and decimals that trip them up,” said Sullivan. “It’s the life situations that trip them up.”
To that end, community colleges are developing programs with adults in mind, rather than the 18-year-olds to which most four-year institutions cater. The LCTCS partners with employers to offer adult students a guarantee of employment once they finish their education—so long as the students play their part. The LCTCS institutes drug testing and a work ethic grade “that says to industry [the students] are going to show up, perform, be safe, and communicate,” said Sullivan.
Valencia College specifically tailors its certificate programs to adult enrollees. “Sometimes there are math requirements, sometimes there are communications requirements, but they are contextualized into the program which makes them both interesting and worthwhile to the student,” said Shugart. Programs are six weeks long and encourage swift, family-sustaining employment.
In addition to carefully conceived programs at the school level, both Sullivan and Monty acknowledged the role of policy in supporting systemic changes. For example, the requirement that non-credit courses be paid for out-of-pocket exacerbate wage inequities across socioeconomic groups.
To supplement policy, philanthropy can play an integral part in capacity-building and funding upfront costs associated with this era of disruption.
“Your role as philanthropists in innovation is absolutely critical,” Sullivan told the audience. “I like the phrase ‘lighting the match.’”
Lighting the Match
Truly innovative community college leaders are abandoning empty metrics like enrollment and degrees earned to seek out methods that support career and life success.
Claire Fiddian-Green of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation led a discussion with three such leaders—Rob Denson of Des Moines Area Community College, David Harrison of Columbus State Community College, and Bill Pink of Grand Rapids Community College—on how philanthropy can best support them.
“The three biggest issues our students face is that they have to work too much, tuition is too high, and that they have family issues,” said Denson, echoing sentiments shared by Sullivan and Shugart. For Denson, local philanthropy has been instrumental in helping Des Moines establish programs to reduce the number of hours students have to work and help low-income, high-barrier students achieve higher work credentials.
Harrison agreed. Local foundations like those in Columbus often underwrite social service agencies and help community colleges connect the dots between student and community. “We want to create an ecosystem where the community is wrapping around our students,” he said. “But the focus isn’t on housing, food, or transportation—it’s on helping students launch a career.”
Philanthropy can also serve as a conduit between community colleges and local businesses.
“There is no sector of higher education better connected to employers than community colleges,” said Denson. “We know, in real time, what the competencies are, how their needs are changing, and what students need to go to work.”
Finally, as the cost of education continues to skyrocket and student debt load becomes a larger concern, funders can work with community colleges to reduce the financial burden on students. “The two-plus-two pathway to a bachelor’s degree is really a game changer,” said Harrison of Valencia’s model, in which students spend two years at Valencia, paying lower tuition rates, and two at a traditional university. Columbus State University College replicated the model with its “preferred pathway” program, through which students who maintain their grades are guaranteed admission to Ohio State upon enrollment at Columbus and can earn their bachelor’s degree for 40%-80% less. Similar initiatives exist both at De Moines Area Community College and Grand Rapids Community College.
Programs like Ohio’s College Credit Plus are also helping students mitigate the costs of higher education. Through the program, high school students have the opportunity to attend college-level courses at no cost to their parents. Philanthropic investment helped the program scale rapidly after its inception and allowed community colleges to build a case for similar programs based on student success and affordability that could be translated into policy.
By the Numbers
Informed decision-making at the college, philanthropic, and policy levels is dependent upon reliable data, particularly when it comes to predicting and meeting trends in workforce supply and demand. Todd Oldham of Monroe Community College (MCC) shared with attendees the strategies his college has employed to obtain and analyze data to develop more impactful programming for its students and community.
In recent years, Rochester, New York has seen 30-year lows in college enrollment, a decreasing high school population, and steadily declining workforce participation despite moderate job growth. Using online job posting data, social profile data, and unemployment data, MCC created a region-wide information-sharing system that monitors the dynamics of the local labor market.
“We look at the 5th year of each graduate from occupations aligned with the programs [they graduated from],” said Oldham. “We then compare their postgraduate experience with employees who were not our students, focusing on attainment and the speed at which they get wage progression through a mid-career point.”
This data allowed MCC to develop a data-driven career pathway model for its students that aligns with major career thresholds. MCC presents relevant data to its students directly to help them understand the value of their CTE education. “We help them understand that if a student graduated from, for example, an optics technology course, they’ll make up to 70% more in their lifetime than just a high school graduate,” said Oldham.
Oldham was then joined by Jaclyn Dowd of the Lilly Endowment, Chris Lowery of Ivy Tech Community College, and Van Ton-Quinlivan, Executive Vice Chancellor Emerita, Workforce and Digital Futures, CA Community Colleges, to discuss other strategies for the thoughtful use of data.
Dowd asked each panelist what data has mattered most to their institution, and earning power was a common theme among all three.
“The pivotal piece of data that began to shift the policy conversation was earning power,” said Ton-Quinlivan. While many four-year associate degree graduates in her home state of California earn $38,000 out of school, CTE graduates make up to $66,000—difficult numbers to argue with when weighing the value of CTE education. Lowery agreed; Ivy Tech Community College measures its students’ wages against median wages in Indiana and performs thorough supply/demand analyses for each program on campus.
Furthermore, quantitative data can be supplemented with qualitative data such as focus groups and self-reported datasets to paint a clearer picture of what students are experiencing. “Qualitative is getting the story from the students,” said Oldham. “Extracting from them what all of this means for them and doing it regularly.”
Lowery shared a few personal examples from Ivy Tech. Particularly inspiring was the story of Brittany Young, a young woman who spent nine years in prison and, had she not discovered machining and welding, likely would have stayed there. She is now a double graduate of certificate programs operated through Ivy Tech and the department of correction, and recently received the second promotion of her burgeoning career.
The panelists also considered how philanthropy can best leverage data to achieve maximum impact over the next few years. First and foremost, philanthropists can be active participants in conversations surrounding community colleges and workforce motility. “There are a lot of thought-leaders in philanthropy,” said Lowery. “Our conversations may or may not result in financial support, but the people in that space are richly informed.”
Ton-Quinlivan added that data provides opportunity for continuous improvement, and philanthropy is well situated to support the future of data’s role in educational outcomes—increased personalization.
Predictive modeling, said Lowry, will also play a major role in the future of community colleges. Ivy Tech currently operates a program called Project Early Success, an algorithm that examines student behavior during the first two weeks of a semester and predicts the likelihood that they will fail or withdraw, based on factors including LMS registration, textbook purchasing, and regular class attendance. Ivy Tech then performs an intentional high-touch outreach to those students. “During the first semester we did it, there was nearly a 4% improvement,” said Chris. Funders can help replicate similar models across the country.
Catering to Communities
Community colleges provide value to their communities in multitudinous ways. Local businesses are bolstered by an eager pool of talent, and large businesses seeking expansion are drawn to dense workforce populations. In fact, robust local talent often surpasses infrastructure and tax policy in expansion considerations.
Stan Shoun, president of Ranken Technical College, shared how his school has benefited St. Louis. The school has achieved 81% graduation rates and a 96% placement rate, even at an institution where 87% of its students receive financial aid and 65% receive Pell Grants.
“Success is measured in getting kids to work,” said Shoun, “and schools that are successful, work the pipeline. They work upstream, downstream, and out of school.”
To that end, Ranken operates under a system of integrated workplace learning that begins well before the college level. Through “proactive scholarships,” 6th-10th grade students can earn up to $10,000 in college credit if they follow one of Ranken’s designated career pathways. Once enrolled, Ranken students are offered apprenticeships, providing them earn-while-you-learn, hands-on job training. Apprenticeships benefit employers as well, allowing them to participate actively in recruiting employees and removing training from overhead costs.
Ranken also facilitates microenterprise “reverse apprenticeships,” wherein industry sends work to Ranken’s campus. In recent years the school has brought seven new companies to campus, including Enterprise Rent-a-Car. These microenterprises train 100-150 students each year and produce about $5 million in products for participating companies. “It’s a win for students, industry, school, and community,” said Shoun.
Holiday Hart McKiernan of the Lumina Foundation followed with a discussion with Jo Alice Blondin of Clark State Community College, Bryan Albrecht of Gateway Technical College, and Joe May of Dallas County Community College to examine other ways in which community colleges enrich their surrounding communities.
Amid the nation’s rampant opioid crisis, community colleges can provide crucial health workforce training. “In Clark County alone, which has a population of 135,000, we had 884 opioid deaths,” said Blondin. “Everybody understands that health is a workforce issue.”
Clark State has addressed the crisis in myriad ways. In partnership with Mercy Bon Secours, it has established inpatient addiction housing across the region. It conducts short-term training for HR and other professionals to provide peer-to-peer health support to families and recovering addicts. It is also working to develop second-chance rehiring policies and it opened a full-service health clinic for all of the businesses along the corridor of its main campus.
“There is an abundance of higher education opportunities in Ohio, especially at the four-year degree level,” said Blondin, “but the hospitals have called the people that [community colleges] are developing ‘unicorns.’” Assuming the role that graduate schools once held, community colleges are re-training students who already have four-year degrees in addiction studies and social work.
Often the most important functions a community college can serve is that of a connector. Dallas has the third fastest growing poverty rate in the nation. Despite population growth, 46,000 jobs are going unfilled because the talent pool lacks the skills or credentials necessary to fill them.
“Autonomy is the enemy,” said May. “What really matters to this strategy is the handoff, where a student leaves one system and tries to engage in another system. We lose more people at transition and handoff points than anywhere else.”
Dallas County Community College thus focuses its efforts on creating a community network. It works with a platform called Greenlight to help students seamlessly share their records with all relevant institutions at once, including schools and employers. It also addresses community-wide issues like transportation and mental health that prevent students from developing the skills they need.
“One of the reasons we don’t see [traditional] higher education responding is because we see leaders who think that their job is to run a college. Now we see leaders who think their job is to improve a community,” said May.
Connecting community institutions is a hallmark of Gateway as well. “When I started at Gateway in 2006, we had a high unemployment rate yet a worker shortage,” said Albrecht. The college has since invested in microentrepreneurial engagement on campus, medical care, dental care, free car repair, housing, and health care to ensure student success and that the college’s programs align with the needs of the community.
“A job is important,” said Albrecht, “but so is that community structure.”
The conference concluded with a panel of funders active in the community college space: Chauncy Lennon of the Lumina Foundation, who served as the moderator, Bill Moses of the Kresge Foundation, Carol D’Amico of Strada Education Network, Lavea Brachman of the Ralph C. Wilson Junior Foundation, and Jeff Barratt of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
“There is lots of investment in higher education, but not as much at this level,” said Lennon. The panelists in turn shared with attendees how they have made impactful investments in community colleges.
Strada Education Network, in collaboration with Gallup, is doing groundbreaking research to better understand ways to serve the education consumer. For example, it used results of a Gallup poll to inform its methods for revving workforce mobility. According to the poll, a general associates degree is rated the least valuable by those who have one. Rated most valuable, in contrast, are post-graduate degrees and technical certificates, career-focused, purposeful degrees that light a clear pathway to work.
The organization helps get 19-24-year-olds on less-than-ideal career pathways back to school through the promise of future employment. “The connection to work is the most powerful motivator for people to enroll and complete,” said D’Amico. “This is where community colleges have both a great opportunity and a great challenge.”
Barratt agreed that the promise of better employment—and, subsequently, a better life—is critical to developing a ready workforce. “Students are consumers,” he said. “They are thinking about time, money, and outcomes.”
The Kauffman Foundation is thus developing competency-based, non-degree credentials to better “sell” upskilling programs to students. Such programs will provide students clear and rapid pathways to work and minimize their debt loads. To ensure relevant outcomes, the Foundation is also working with businesses to back competency-based hiring models that can be scaled throughout the country.
The Kresge Foundation has been supporting community colleges for a decade and bases its giving on student-focused institutions. The students of today are very different from those attending school 50 years ago. Today, adult students are themselves low-income. They have very little margin between success and failure in their personal lives, and, at any moment, a relatively small expense or economic challenge can derail them. Many students also lack the wisdom of college-graduate parents.
“They’re making rational but not informed choices,” said Moses. “A proprietary institution won’t necessarily get them a job at the end; that’s just marketing.”
Kresge’s aim is to help institutions adjust to better serve their students. The foundation is constantly seeking to rectify the barriers to adult student success, including conceptualizing improvements to the credit-transfer process “With 18-year-olds, we know who they are,” said Moses. “But with older adults, they are hidden in plain sight. How do you serve them in a way that you can grow them from where they are?”
Finally, Brachman shared her experience at the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, a spend-down foundation that is relatively young. Wilson understands the importance of bolstering regional labor markets, as “people probably aren’t living next door to their employers.” It has also invested in capacity building, focusing not only on funding particular programs but embedding capacity building within those grants.
The Foundation also supports employer collaboratives, wherein businesses tell community colleges the skills that they need to fill their rosters and help them establish programs that teach them.
Lennon closed the event with statement that gets at the heart of the future of higher education investing: “When you have a community college, that’s not just about students. It becomes an economic mobility engine.”