How Community Colleges can Drive Post COVID Economic Recovery

October 20, 2020

In the spring of 2020, the world was upended. COVID-19 swept over the world, closing businesses and forcing employers to let go of millions of employees permanently. With skyrocketing unemployment and social distancing measures still firmly in place, many workers wonder: what do I do now? 

Education is typically where one goes when they need help in their career. However, education has been one industry that has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Educators and students have had to quickly adapt to virtual learning environments, oftentimes with very little guidance. The potential saviors in this crisis are often overlooked: community and technical colleges. 

Community colleges can be excellent leaders in responding to this crisis because they emphasize affordability, flexible education delivery, and have connections to local economies. Furthermore, they are especially helpful to those looking to change professions or looking to get specific skills and certifications to enter the workforce quickly.

Community Colleges before COVID-19

Community colleges have often catered to a variety of different types of students. Many high school graduates choose to pursue an associate degree before transferring to a university.  According to the Education Commission of the States, over 30 states have policies that guarantee students who earn an associate degree at a community college can transfer their credits to a 4-year school. Some other schools have their own transfer agreements with partner universities. Students can save time and money by first getting their associate degree at a community college, then transferring to a 4-year college.

Community colleges are also very attractive to lifelong learners. Collegeboard found that “among full-time lower-level undergraduate students in 2011-12, about 10% were 25 or older in the public four-year and private nonprofit four-year sectors, compared to 35% in the public two-year sector.” Many offer professional programs such as nursing that are more affordable and more specialized than their university counterparts. 

Financial Incentives 

There is often a negative stigma associated with community colleges, especially coming from graduating high school students. Universities are typically much more attractive options for young people due to the desire to live “the college experience.”  But even absent a pandemic, this experience comes with a very steep cost. According to Collegeboard, the average cost of tuition for public in-state 4-year institutions is $9,410. Conversely, the same study found that public two-year in-states institutions cost just $3,440 per year in tuition.

Low-income students are also more likely to enroll in community colleges than higher-income students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, of all students who enrolled in higher education in 2016, students in the lowest quintile socioeconomic status enrolled in community college at a rate of 51%. It is compared with only 18% of students from the highest quintile.

A low-cost alternative to 4-year institutions is even more enticing during a financial crisis. A study from the American Association of Community Colleges shows the greatest percentage of students (46.1%) beginning their postsecondary education at community colleges was during the Great Recession in fall 2009. With mass unemployment, and an economic crash comparable to the Great Depression, COVID-19 will likely cause enrollment in community colleges to increase, as workers search for ways to reenter the workforce. 

Creating jobs During the Pandemic

Unfortunately, as millions of Americans became unemployed after the coronavirus swept across the country, many of those jobs will never return. Helping workers find jobs in a pandemic-battered economy is a national priority. Community colleges can play a pivotal role in retraining workers for new jobs that will emerge from this crisis. Because of their structure, community colleges are often more agile than big, four-year institutions. It allows them to adapt to the changing needs of the economy. 

For instance, it should come as no surprise that jobs in healthcare are in high demand. Many healthcare professionals who serve on the pandemic's front lines received their education and training at community colleges. The ramped-up training could easily meet the demand of the time.

The Future is Agile

It has been said for some time now that as the world continues to change ever more rapidly, so will our careers. Millennials and Gen-Zers will likely have more jobs in their lifetimes than any other previous generation. It should come as no surprise, given how much has changed over the past 20 years alone. Many jobs working in technology were not even created until the past decade. Trends such as telecommuting and e-commerce were already well underway for years. 

COVID-19 accelerated these trends, pushing years of change into a matter of months.With rising technological, political, and economic disruption, those who strive in the 21st century are those who quickly adapt to unpredictable changes.The same goes for organizations as it does for individuals. 

Agility is ultimately how community colleges can thrive in the world’s ‘new normal.’ The days of clunky, outdated, and overpriced college programs are numbered- and good riddance. The pandemic has highlighted how outdated the American higher education system really is. Whereas universities focus on degrees, community colleges focus on skills. Community colleges offer cheap, swift job training programs allowing workers to quickly re-skill in the face of disruption. The demand for such programs is going to increase as time goes on, even absent a pandemic. 

Cornerstone of Recovery

Sitting at the intersection of education and professional development, community colleges are well-positioned to make significant contributions to the nation during this unprecedented crisis and may well be a cornerstone of economic recovery. Students and workers are wise to avoid paying high prices for bulky degrees at 4-year institutions, especially given how poorly many of them have performed during the pandemic. Reskilling a workforce that has been devastated by technological disruption and a health crisis is a national priority. It is time to give community colleges the respect they deserve and invest more heavily in them.

Written by
Jake Hannigan

Jake Hannigan is the Business Development Strategist for Van Allen Strategies. He has spent his career growing and developing start-ups in the education and technology industries.

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