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By: Tony Mayer

"Community colleges cannot respond fast enough. They need to rapidly accelerate their ability to deliver employer-driven education, and they need access to tools and strategies to help them be innovators. Their survival depends on it, as do the livelihoods of millions of working Americans who need pathways into the jobs of the future." 

—Rufus Glasper, Ph.D., President and CEO
League for Innovation in the Community College
Chancellor Emeritus, Maricopa Community College

For almost 12 million students, America’s 1,050 community colleges promise an education with three results any degree should provide: marketable skills, a connection to employment, and the ability to be fairly compensated for that employment. The returns on a small sum invested are immeasurable. Indeed, community colleges are emerging as an attractive philanthropic investment for donors interested in clearing pathways to work for vulnerable populations

These institutions are plentiful across the U.S., educate over half the college students in this country, and offer highly cost-effective tuition. In many locales, the community college is the most practical way to connect adults with immediate work opportunities in the region. The impact of community colleges on local economies is also significant. Employers benefit from a prepared workforce, local businesses gain a high concentration of people on local campuses, and communities flourish from well-prepared individuals in important roles such as first responders and healthcare workers.

Emsi, an affiliate of the Strada Education Network, estimates that the economic impact just of Grand Rapids Community College’s non-credit workforce development programs was $129.7 million—with improved wages, higher productivity, and increased spending. With these skilled alumni, 41 businesses either located to the GRCC service region or expanded their operations in the 2016-2017 fiscal year. A total of 1,598 jobs were secured, with most of these jobs in manufacturing, health care and social assistance, and administrative and waste services.

Similarly, the Community Colleges of Colorado (13 colleges and 39 locations) tracked a nearly $6 billion addition to Colorado’s income in 2017. More than 169,000 Colorado workers have been trained through their programs, including more than half of the state’s nurses and more than 90% of their first responders.

Community colleges are also poised to emerge as an even more viable alternative to four-year schools in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic. The clear, shorter term pathways to employment in middle-skills jobs is attractive, as is community college’s close proximity to students and the option to live off campus. While some colleges are still adapting to the reality of an online environment, many community colleges were already engaged in online and virtual education. According to a study by the American Association of Community Colleges, between 15% and 70% of public community college students were already taking at least one course online in 2018.

Among other contributions, outstanding community colleges elevate many Americans from low-income backgrounds who would otherwise be stuck in ruts of low-wage, menial work. As James Denova of the Pittsburgh-based Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation shares, these laboratories of learning are “one of the best anti-poverty programs in the U.S.” He points to their “affordability, open enrollment, remediation, and social supports for people who aren’t prepared for postsecondary education by our high-school system.”

Community colleges may also serve a critical role in the nation’s recovery from the COVID-19 economic disruption. By securing a quick certificate or credential, a dislocated worker may be able to quickly find re-employment in a new industry or career.

As this white paper explores, donors have a vast opportunity to make a difference through investments in community colleges through their funds, ideas, and energy. A number of significant philanthropists are committed to the community college space, including the Gates, Kellogg, Lumina, Kresge, Harry Helmsley, Bernard Osher, Joyce, Annie Casey, Mott, Kauffman, Benedum, Morgridge, Palmer, Kraft, and Ralph C. Wilson foundations. Individual donors, such as Karen Buchwald Wright and Junki Yoshida, are also involved.

"Philanthropists interested in higher education could shift their generosity towards less selective and wealthy institutions, including the extensive network of community colleges, lesser known state-run colleges, and small, struggling, unselective private colleges. After all, these schools educate many times more students than the elite universities favored by the wealthiest donors."

—Amy L. Wax, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School

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