Shrinking Community Colleges Looking to Pivot

Germanna Community College

Nothing like losing a quarter of your customers to get your attention.

That basically is what has happened to Virginia’s Community College System, with last term’s enrollment down 57,000 (actually only 22 percent) from its peak six years ago during the early days of the economic recovery. That drop exceeds the total enrollment at the 17 smaller campuses and has cost the institutions millions in revenue and forced personnel cuts.

Chancellor Glenn DuBois and two of the community college presidents shared that information and spent about an hour Tuesday with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia laying out steps underway to attract more students, which will have to happen if Virginia is to meet the goals it has set for degrees and work certifications.

DuBois, who has served as chancellor since 2001, spoke again during the meeting at Richard Bland College of his vision of “a college graduate in every household” and of abolishing the phrase “first-generation student.”

One response has been only modest increases in VCCS tuition and fees for the coming year, at 2.5 percent below the official inflation rate and in stark contrast to the four year institutions. The annual cost for a full semester load is around $5,000, but DuBois noted that is still a great deal of money for many Virginians. Students in the community colleges are older, lower income, working part time. Fifteen of the 23 schools have food banks.

Like many of his predecessors, Governor Ralph Northam has made education and workforce development a high priority and Northam talked during his campaign about lowering or eliminating the cost of attending the public community colleges. About 20 states now have some version of a “promise program” where all or some high school graduates face no tuition bills at community colleges.

DuBois said that remains under discussion, which was confirmed a bit later in the meeting by the Governor’s Chief Workforce Advisor Megan Healy. But with a price tag in the hundreds of millions of dollars, “I don’t think that’s going to happen this year,” Healy said. In 2019 the General Assembly will be considering budget amendments, but the Governor doesn’t do his own full budget until 2020.

Absent a sudden commitment to free or almost free tuition, a VCCS task force responding to the situation focused heavily on marketing and process improvements. They are leaving the comfort zone, DuBois said, using words like “pivot” and “evolve.”

What if students didn’t have to apply to attend? The system is working on an open enrollment approach, but it isn’t there yet. It is making progress on reducing the paperwork and migrating the application process to smart phones. People should enroll in one day, “one and done,” said President Janet Gullickson of Germanna near Fredericksburg. “Believe it or not, that’s radical.”

The task force also said to make scheduling, degree planning, advising and even payment and financial aid compatible with the mobile environment. An early alert system can flag a struggling student, so a counselor reaches out to them rather than the other way around.

Do people understand how an associate degree or even a workforce certificate can boost their income? Better marketing may spread the word about the FastForward program which offers reimbursement grants on completion of a workforce credential. The grants “sold out” in their first two years and the General Assembly boosted the funding for this new budget, which may sell out again.

The target audience is no longer 18 to 24-year-olds. DuBois mentioned a Winchester man who lost his long-time job at a recycling center, came to the community college looking for his GED, but in 12 weeks earned a manufacturing technician certificate. He quickly landed a job with 40 percent more pay and, for the first time in his life, full benefits. He will be highlighted as the 10,000th FastForward graduate.

Another popular certificate program for forklift operations takes just four days. Before any of these programs is approved there is a demonstrated demand for the skills.

Gullickson mentioned a basic marketing problem she found at Germanna when she started – no one able to translate for Spanish students dealing with administrative matters. With the changing demographics in that region, the website needed a Spanish version, at an 8th grade reading level so the parents of potential students could understand it.

Work continues eliminating remaining barriers or duplicate requirements for students seeking to start at a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution. There are state grants for that process, too, which not long ago was getting the most attention as a new role for the community colleges. But based on comments Tuesday, the long-term response to the current challenge may be a system that looks more like its original 1960’s focus on workforce training.

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12 responses to “Shrinking Community Colleges Looking to Pivot”

  1. Community colleges are what economists might call a counter-cyclical industry. When the economy slows down, business picks up as unemployed and under-employed workers polish up their workforce skills in the hope of finding a job. In full employment, which is what we have across most of Virginia right now, people are… well, they’re working. THe opportunity cost of attending community college is much higher now.

    Undertaking the process improvements Du Bois describes is probably a good idea. But I suspect that the biggest challenge is persuading people they can make more money in the long run by earning new workforce credentials. If the CC system does do more marketing, which it probably should, it should focus on telling people which particular skills are most in demand right now and how much they can expect to increase their pay.

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Yes, its a counter cycle on demand, but we are also in a time when there is this huge shortfall of skilled workers – so I do think they have a message to sell. And a “promise” program or something similar is aimed directly at that “opportunity cost.” DuBois is right – too few people understand that $5 grand is a grand sum to a very high percentage of the people who would benefit most from what these schools offer.

  3. djrippert Avatar

    Multiple issues:

    As Jim Bacon correctly points out, community colleges are counter-cyclical. Right now the US economy is on better footing than at any time in the last 10 years. Students who were working part time are back full time.

    The Echo Boomers are graduating from college. Nobody wants to understand this demographic change but it’s as real as real can get. Some of the students who would have gone to community colleges are now going to 4 year institutions which have seen lower legitimate applications. This trend will continue for years. The only question in my mind is when (not if) it will start affecting the 4 year schools.

    Possible solutions

    Think more broadly. Many students with liberal arts degrees from 4 year schools are finding themselves under-employed. In the past technology companies would take these smart and motivated young people and put them through in-house training. Short term work visas are cheaper for the employer so the training programs that once were a hallmark of companies like General Electric, EDS and Accenture have been essentially mothballed in favor of H1B visa holders. However, there are still those bright and motivated anthropology majors out there who found out that positions for “the next Margaret Mead” are few and far between. Teach them. 6, 9, 12 month programs to bring them to proficiency in some technical field. Make them work hard and make them pay full boat. Line up prospective employers. If they graduate they’ll pay off their loans.

    Retiree education. History, creative writing, economics. Classes for bored retirees. Maybe the retiree takes one per semester. So what? It’s constructive entertainment. There are hundreds of podcasts where the author (?) of the podcast basically provides history lessons. They charge $1.99 for a 3 hour podcast and sell to a mass market. Cruise ships hire professors to give lectures on interesting topics to the passengers. C’mon, this is easy.

    Work /study progression. First you learn to be a PC / Mac troubleshooter. Then you work for 6 months as one. Then, LAN Administrator. Then you work 6 months. Then, programmer. And so on. Study, work, study, work. Do it now when the job market is tight and employers are likely to be flexible.

  4. Some math: if 57,000 students was 22% of the peak enrollment in 2012, then the peak enrollment was 259,000, down to around 202,000 today. At $5000 per semester, doubled to annualize for two semesters per year, it would cost roughly $1 billion annually to send every one of today’s students to community college at no charge — that is, the same way we treat high school.

    I continue to believe free community college should be our goal, as some other States have concluded. No loans, no student debt. A high school education just isn’t enough to stand out in today’s world economy, where our principal advantage lies in the thinking jobs not manual labor. Of course applications would rise somewhat if there were no cost to attend, but there is a limited pool of folks who could or would take the time off to attend.

    And think of the competitive pressure that free c. c. would bring to bear on the rampant escalation of the cost of attending a traditional four year residential college in Virginia.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      I think $5 grand gets you two semesters, and there is financial aid for many students, but of course tuition and fees are only part of the cost for a non-traditional student who may also have child care and transportation issues. I blow hot and cold on “free” but very much favor a far lower cost, with some incentives for completion.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    These community colleges are nothing more or else than high school with a modern version of shop class. Call them what they are, and make them free, the same as what in fact they are, the modern version of high school. Another words give then the dignity that they deserve.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      You are so dead wrong. You really need to go visit one of them.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        I have Steve, I spend several days in the classrooms of one of the largest community colleges in Virginia. There were exceptions, of course, but the majority of those kids did not have a decent high school education, not one anywhere close to the typical high school graduate of 40 years ago. These kids in that community college were simply and obviously not prepared for post high school work. It was a scandal. Very sad to see. And I confirmed what I saw by having an extensive conversation with one of their professors who taught English and writing. Many of those kids in community college had no more than an eight grade education. This is the norm in many of them. Ask your wife.

        1. Steve Haner Avatar
          Steve Haner

          There you may have me. You’d find the same at many of the four-years (which my wife told me long ago). Another conversation. The high schools shouldn’t be graduating them – that’s simple fraud. And sadly that remediation is necessary because too many fail to recognize that a real foundation (math, reading) is also required for many of these non-degree skills programs.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: “shop”… I’m more in line with Acbar. Recently had a “scan” at the hospital and talked to the “tech”. She spend 18 months getting trained and certified. The hospital helped with the tuition. She’s checked out on a couple of machines but wants to get more education – perhaps Nursing.

    She could not have gotten that in high school. There are a lot of jobs like that these days. Almost everything is computerized these days and you gotta know how to operate specific equipment that now is computerized …

    Police now have to take a series of courses – Criminal Justice.

    Auto mechanics now have to use computers that talk to computers on cars..

    most all of this requires some level of education beyond high school.

    It’s not the rigor of a higher ed Masters or PHD but it’s a real job in the economy that pays a decent wage and requires students that have basic education sufficient to read and understand technical manuals and operate computerized equipment.

    Every person that gets an occupational certificate – becomes a taxpayer instead of an entitlement taker…

    and people who take the first step beyond High School education – can and many do – go on to 4 years and even better jobs.

    Finally – there are some folks who are seeking 4 year education – who really would be better off in 2 yr to start and leave the 4yr to all those poor middle class guys that are getting screwed with higher tuition!

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m just of the view that in the 21st century – High School will not equip you for much in the economy beyond manual labor and low level service jobs and many folks simply cannot afford 4-year higher ed even with financial “assistance” which usually means significant indebtedness that hobbles folks for years to pay off.

    I’m also of the view that education is the key to more/better individual financial self-sufficiency – a taxpayer instead of an entitlement taker and that, in turn, justifies other taxpayers providing a “free” Community College education that will lead to a better job than manual labor or service if they are getting an occupational certificate.

    Some folks get this via GI benefits after serving in Armed Forces. I’d be in favor of some equivalent civilian service in exchange for “free”.. where that “service” would include some training for understanding what an employer needs in an employee beyond just the core work… i.e. to be on time, to be reliable, to use good judgement, etc… things one does learn in the military but not necessarily in College.

    We need to recognize that if we let kids growing up to adults – but perhaps not with the best parental influence… if we just let those kids twist in the wind – it comes back on us in the form of people needing MedicAid and other entitlements. People may not realize it but one-half of ALL births in the US are paid for by MedicAid.

    Think about that. That means that one-half of people having kids – have to rely on other taxpayers to pay for it because they do not have enough income from their jobs to pay for it!!!!

    1. Agree about that service requirement (military or civilian). To Reed’s point, high school isn’t necessarily doing enough or doing it right — a very different problem than this post — but even if it did prepare kids adequately, c.c. sets out to accomplish something high school doesn’t attempt, like all those tech certifications Larry mentions, as well as offer a path to more traditional liberal arts courses for those who want them. As Jim often reminds us, those job certifications often serve as guild-like job entry barriers intended mainly to keep competition down and prices up — but if they have any legitimacy for quality assurance also, c.c. is the place to offer a way past them.

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