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By Olivia Sanchez

Sometimes the only choice is to evolve. 

That was the case for Lorain County Community College in northeastern Ohio, in the heart of the rust belt, when the surrounding manufacturing industry began to crumble in the 1990’s. The college had been founded in part to train workers for automotive and steel manufacturing jobs, and suddenly leaders had to pivot in order to stay relevant and try to keep people in jobs. They shifted their focus to entrepreneurship. Soon, they realized they didn’t need to abandon manufacturing altogether – they just had to evolve for a new world. 

Marcia Ballinger, Lorain’s president, said they learned from local employers that the jobs in Northeastern Ohio were no longer in the traditional factories that relied on manual labor. Instead, many of the new advanced manufacturing jobs require people to climb into big, white “bunny suits,” which keep the working environment clean and looking more like a scientific lab than a factory. They’re more likely to be working with microchips and circuit boards than the steel and automotive parts they would have been handling just a few decades ago. 

It didn’t happen overnight, but Lorain leaders consulted with 80 regional employers, updated the curriculum to align with industry needs, and ultimately developed bachelor’s, associate, and certificate programs that prepare students to work in various micro-electromechanical systems jobs.

“We are not only helping to build that qualified workforce, but part of our moral imperative is moving students, moving our community up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Ballinger, who has been working at the college since 1991. “It was driven by the community, for the community.”

Lorain County Community College’s microelectromechanical systems programs were identified by the Harvard Project on Workforce in a new book, “America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity,” as one of five examples of community colleges thriving, moving in lockstep with local economy, and evolving for the needs of the community.

By highlighting examples from Lorain, Mississippi Gulf Coast, San Jacinto, Pima and Northern Virginia community colleges, Rachel Lipson, co-editor of the book, hopes it can function as a playbook for leaders across the country who want to better serve their communities. And she hopes these examples show that community colleges are worthy of investment. 

Community colleges, Lipson said, “are not just a tool for people thinking about education, but actually if you care about opportunity in the country and economic opportunity being available to more people, here’s a type of place where you should put your money.”

Experts agree that community colleges have immense potential to boost economic and social mobility and reduce racial inequality in the United States. That’s the hopeful view.  

That potential comes from sheer size. Despite large enrollment declines, community colleges still enroll about 41 percent of all undergraduate students nationally, and larger shares of Black and Latino students, low-income students and first-generation students. Yet fewer than half of community college students graduate within even eight years of entry, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. 

Many factors contribute to this. Community college students are often older than students at four-year colleges. On top of their academic load, many students juggle children or other family responsibilities, have jobs, and struggle with food, housing and transportation insecurity.  A new survey by the education consulting group EAB found that many community college leaders themselves believe that bureaucratic obstacles and poor customer service may also contribute to student retention problems. 

Right now, community colleges are far from reaching the transformative potential these experts see. 

Robert B. Schwartz, a senior advisor of the Harvard Workforce Project and a co-editor of the book, said that, at their best, community colleges are nimble, market-oriented institutions that have the ability to serve their students and better their communities. But these colleges have to go beyond aligning their program offerings with the current workforce needs, Schwartz said, and work with employers “to help shape regional demand and help shape the direction of regional economies.”

The programs highlighted in the book are shining examples of what community colleges can do to better serve students and communities, he said.

“This is what we hope community colleges can grow to become,” Schwartz said. “We desperately need our two-year institutions to really step up.”

Lisa Larson, head of the Community College Growth Engine at the Education Design Lab, a nonprofit that seeks to improve higher education systems and reduce equity and skills gaps, said that community colleges need to totally reframe their services and mission.

Community colleges should think of their role as setting up, not only lifelong learners, but lifelong successful employees, who “can easily see and seamlessly move through both their education and work experience.”

At Lorain County Community College, leaders have established partners with 30 companies in the advanced manufacturing industry alone in order to better serve students and help employers ensure they will have a steady pipeline of trained workers, Ballinger said. 

In the microelectromechanical systems programs, students can participate in “earn-and-learn” programs, allowing them to work part-time in a local business and go to school, make money, get job experience, and earn credits toward their degree or certificate. 

Some employers that the college partners with will pay for their workers to study micro-electromechanical systems at Lorain, Ballinger said. Others participate in the college’s “earn-and-learn” program, which allows students to be exposed to different employers, understand the work they will be doing, and still come to school two days a week. 

Many students have to work, so it allows them to get paid for the work they are learning to do, get work experience in the field, and be exposed to different regional employers. 

“That became their employment as well as their education, so that they could blend it together,” Ballinger said. “Connection to the employer, it shouldn’t be thought of as after the fact.”

The four other colleges highlighted in the book are:

  • Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, which did away with the credit and noncredit distinctions and instead created eight subject-focused schools that include both credit and noncredit courses and academic and career advising for all students by school.
  • Northern Virginia Community Colleges, which is taking advantage of rapidly growing information technology and cybersecurity fields and preparing students for those jobs in part by partnering with Amazon Web Services to offer an associate degree in applied science in cloud computing.
  • Pima Community College in Arizona, which expanded its workforce development division to give employers and students a central hub for jobs. The division includes special teams to support small business development, innovation and lifelong learning.
  • San Jacinto College in Houston, which has a road map to boost students’ economic mobility by encouraging career exploration as soon as a student enrolls, reducing the number of general studies majors and connecting students with mentors who can help them work toward their goals.

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