Community colleges key to respond to changing demographics, workforce demand
[ASPEN] – Despite dire stories that a college degree is becoming too expensive, a panel of experts in higher education at the Aspen Ideas Festival on July 1 agreed that postsecondary degrees and certificates will be essential to prepare the workforce of the future, even as higher education must adapt to rapidly changing needs of both students and employers.
“The likelihood of being unemployed is four times higher for a high school graduate than someone with a degree,” said Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. And although in recent years annual wages have fallen $4-5,000 for the average college graduate, they have dropped even more significantly for people with only a high school diploma, he said.
“If you take the right program, you will earn well,” he added, pointing out that graduates holding associate degrees often out-earn those holding bachelor’s or even graduate degrees.
Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, said colleges in his system are enrolling many recent bachelor’s graduates who seek associate degrees and certificates in health care, information technology and other careers that are in high demand. “We are serving as a type of finishing school,” he said.
“By 2020, three-fourths of jobs in Colorado will require postsecondary education of some sort,” said Colorado Mountain College President Carrie Besnette Hauser. “Currently, 25 percent of our high school graduates get an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years. This is an enormous gap – how do we fill it?”
On top of that, educators will have to adapt in order to teach students who are changing careers more frequently. “It used to be that people would average six to eight careers during their lives,” said panelist Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. “That will probably double or more over the next decade.”
Community colleges can lead innovation
Panel moderator Josh Wyner, a vice president and executive director of the College Excellence Program at The Aspen Institute, noted that of the 20 to 25 million students currently enrolled in a college or university, approximately half are attending community colleges. In 1956 approximately 10 percent of college students were of Hispanic origin; by 2024 that is expected to increase to 25 percent, and many of those students will be attending a community college.
“We have known for some time that the demographics of our K-12 pipeline and who goes to college are drastically changing,” said CMC’s Hauser. She said that in some school districts within the college’s service area the Latino population is more than 50 percent. “It is both an economic and social imperative [to serve students who graduate from local high schools].”
She noted that community colleges can innovate and incubate, much as Colorado Mountain College has done by being the first two-year college in the state to offer bachelor’s degrees, or by launching the Isaacson School for New Media to support local workforce needs.
Carnevale said that test-based professional certifications have increased, so that there are now 30 million in the U.S. He noted that many workers have up to five certifications. Community colleges offer various certificates of proficiency and testing services, as well as relatively affordable associate degrees that students can transfer to a four-year institution.
“Community colleges cannot be a place where a degree dies,” said Hauser. “We cannot let that continue. We need to ensure if a student is degree- or certificate-seeking, they reach that goal.”
“We need to make sure that the open door doesn’t become a revolving door,” said Ralls of the North Carolina Community College System, which serves nearly a million students a year.