Community College Leadership: Strengthening the Economic Development Connection

January 12, 2023

"She's just doing her gen ed courses at the community college. Then she'll transfer to a real college."

"He's just not ready for college college."

"Community college is just for kids who want to be welders or plumbers."

It's ironic how institutions devoted to providing knowledge to some 7 million students annually can be so misunderstood.

Michael T. Miller, professor of higher education and former dean of the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, trains the next generation of community college administrators. He is all too familiar with the misconceptions that community college leaders face.

"Community colleges are not the 13th grade," Miller says. "While community colleges can be steppingstones to four-year degrees, they've never been about that."

"Community colleges have a real opportunity to redefine themselves as trainers of a new class of professionals."

Michael T. Miller, Professor of higher education, University of Arkansas

Only about 31% of community college students transfer to four-year universities. The rest are at community colleges because that's where they want and need to be. Why? Because community colleges are an academically excellent, affordable and accessible option for skills acquisition for learners ranging from recent high school graduates to adult learners. Two-year degree programs, says Miller, might be an "affordable place to start a post-secondary career, but the experience is not less than a four-year degree."


White Collars, Blue Collars, and New Collars

In many ways, today's community colleges stand at the forefront of rapidly changing workplace expectations. Gone are the days of jobs being neatly categorized as white- or blue-collar. When it comes to employment these days, the collars come in all kinds of colors.

"Computer coding and hospitality and cooking and even artisanal drinks and bread," Miller muses. "We're seeing rapid growth in ‘new' collar jobs – high-paying careers that don't require four-year degrees."

Community colleges have always had a strong vocational education component, and that in itself has fed public perception of their educational value.

"It is in all the stereotypes," Miller notes. "If you're not ‘book smart,' we'll teach you to be a welder. You'll have a blue-collar job, and those jobs can pay very well."

But in reality, "vocational" encompasses a very wide range of jobs and careers – all of which require knowledge, skills and professional training, whatever "collar" they wear.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, community colleges train nearly 80% of our nation's first responders. They train over 60% of our nurses. The vocational role of the community college is deeply stitched into the functioning of our local communities, whether you're talking about skilled trades or skilled nursing.

Photo of Michael T. Miller
Michael T. Miller

"But now, a whole new class of jobs is taking off," says Miller. "Computer coding, graphic design, electric vehicle management – jobs that largely exclude the four-year universities. Community colleges have a real opportunity to redefine themselves as trainers of a new class of professionals."

It's here, in the space between blue-collar jobs and new-collar jobs, that community colleges prove so valuable. They fuel local and regional economic development in ways that four-year universities cannot always do.


Communities of Learning, Learning their Communities

Community colleges have always had a broad mission: serving the educational needs of their communities. But that mission has never been about replacing the four-year college experience. Instead, it's about addressing needs that are not always met by traditional colleges and universities. Those needs extend beyond students to employers and regional economic development challenges.

For students, the mission translates to providing greater accessibility. Free from some of the barriers that can be encountered in the traditional university system – high tuition costs, complex entrance and application requirements, inflexible delivery formats, or the need to relocate to campus or find housing – community colleges facilitate multiple points of entry to education.

"That's why," according to Miller, "you see a majority of underrepresented minorities in higher education today enrolled in community colleges. It's accessible."

For communities, the community college mission is an affirmation of identity. Larger four-year universities, for better or worse, have come to define themselves by their selling points: sports teams, large stadiums, gyms and libraries. Community colleges, says Miller, define themselves differently. They are often at the heart of community life.

"The library or student center at a community college might double as a community center. In some towns, the public library is at the community college," says Miller. "They are deeply integrated with the communities they serve."

And for industries and employers, the community college mission is a driver of economic success. Community colleges are the tools often used to target regional development and attract and retain employers.

Let's say a state sees the need to grow its economic development capacity in a particular area – for example, when Alabama saw an opportunity to get into car manufacturing in the late 2010s with a joint venture with Mazda and Toyota.

"Industries don't want to chance going where they're not able to hire workers," says Miller. "So, legislators and state policymakers use community colleges to train people and develop labor pipelines."

Community colleges hold the mechanisms to provide skills training for business and industry developing tailored job training programs that can respond rapidly to local needs. Ventures like the Mazda Toyota factory in Huntsville, Alabama, rely on these programs. When the factory, partially online in 2021, is fully operational, it will employ over 4,000 people. That's a lot of talent that must be filled quickly.

"Community colleges are incubators for industry," says Miller. "These colleges grow the talent pools industries recruit from."

"For instance, there's a boat manufacturer in Flippin, Arkansas – Vexus Boats, and their bass boats are very common in North America. But say they want to export these boats to Japan. They've got to be ISO certified. It's much easier for them to contract with the local community college, especially when the state will subsidize."

Michael T. Miller, Professor of higher education, University of Arkansas

Incubators for Talent

This year, according to ManpowerGroup, 75% of employers had trouble finding properly skilled employees, up from 69% in 2021. The so-called "skills gap," the air between potential employees needing to gain a skill and a skilled job waiting for a worker to fill it, is a common industry problem that community colleges are positioned to solve.

Consider an issue like ISO certification training. If a business is going to build anything aimed at global distribution, that product must conform to the current standards set by the International Organization for Standardization.

"For instance, there's a boat manufacturer in Flippin, Arkansas – Vexus Boats," Miller recalls, "and their bass boats are very common in North America. But say they want to export these boats to Japan. They've got to be ISO certified."

This is where the skills challenge comes in. It's costly and difficult, Miller says, for companies to organize ISO training in-house.

"It's much easier for them to contract with the local community college, especially when the state will subsidize."

Both the state and the business stand to gain from the solutions provided by community colleges. Naturally, the state wants the boat manufacturer to be profitable – Vexus's 2021 expansion netted Flippin some 50 jobs, along with the host of semi-skilled and unskilled jobs the multiplier effect brings with it. And Vexus wants the convenience of a skilled labor pool without the attendant costs and time involved in training. Contracting with community colleges for skills training is a win-win for all involved, ensuring local economic development and the individual business' success.

But community colleges don't simply serve as training solutions for local businesses. They can, in fact, "serve as hubs of expertise for entire regions," says Miller.

"One community college in Northwest Arkansas might focus on health-related programs," Miller says, something not offered in the rest of the state. Industry professionals and potential students flock to the college for training and then spread their skills and talents across the state.


Workforces of the Future

As economies expand, so does the skills gap. That's not totally a bad thing if you look at the skills gap as a measure of progress and growth and a space for new opportunities. The agility inherent in community colleges puts them in a unique position to train a talent pool that can go out and seize those opportunities and begin to fill the skills gap.

A community college student works in the campus library.

"Community colleges are very flexible, very nimble – especially non-credit-bearing programs," Miller remarks. "Those can be turned over almost instantly. But even credit-bearing programs can be brought online much faster than at a four-year institution."

When economic change occurs, community colleges can pivot, providing whatever training economic progress demands, when it demands it. And despite the economic impacts of COVID-19 over the past few years, the pace of progress has not slowed and the need for skilled talent has not diminished. The pandemic saw multiple state legislatures patching labor gaps by funding or expanding workforce training programs through the community college system, and this trend won't end with COVID.

Funding from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, authorizing up to $108 billion in federal funding for public transportation, is driving development in many sectors and fueling demand for skilled labor. In Kentucky, for example, the funding has allowed the Transit Authority of River City, which serves the Louisville Metro area, to announce plans to expand its fleet with up to six electric buses along with the infrastructure to power them.

"A traditional combustion engine car has 20,000 parts," notes Miller. "An electric vehicle? About 200." Manufacturing electric vehicles requires a radically different skill set. Miller predicts that "community colleges will be the vehicle for the training to change the entire transportation industry."

Indeed, Louisville's transit authority is partnering with Jefferson Community and Technical College along with local unions for the workforce training necessary to see their project through.

"How do we guard against mission creep? Being highly responsive to a local economy can become secondary to offering ‘glamorous' degrees. How do we protect the integrity of that mission rather than trying to change it into something else?"

Michael T. Miller, Professor of higher education, University of Arkansas

Educating Tomorrow's Education Leaders

While community colleges drive economic development, they aren't in it for the money. All the partnerships and training programs are not geared toward profit for the colleges, but to support the communities they serve. The U of A Master of Education in Community College Leadership program never loses sight of this.

The nature of this mission has seen some debate in recent years, as some community colleges began offering bachelor's degrees. Some argue that this can dilute what makes community colleges so unique – and effective.

"How do we guard against mission creep?" Miller asks. "Being highly responsive to a local economy can become secondary to offering ‘glamorous' degrees. How do we protect the integrity of that mission rather than trying to change it into something else?"

For Miller, the answer lies in leadership and in training the next generation of community college leaders. U of A's program keeps the focus on "the mission of the community college, on understanding that mission, understanding where it came from, why it exists, and how to make decisions true to it."

Being a full-time employee of a community college is an enrollment prerequisite of the program. The first course in the program, History of the Community College, tasks students with taking a careful look at the history of the community college where they currently work – how it was founded, and what its mission was. Then, they compare those founding documents to the current mission statement of the school, seeing if where they are today aligns with the original reason they came to be.

"It's about knowing who you are," Miller says. "It's about coming out of the program with a core set of beliefs grounded in something bigger."

Projects like this give students hands-on training in the mechanics of administration.

"Every class has applied learning components," says Miller. Take the Students in Community Colleges class, for example. "Instead of simply studying demographics, students go out and meet with other students, interview them individually and even run student focus groups, trying to figure out their concerns, how they might be best taught or better served."

Not only are students encouraged to get to know the student populations that make community colleges who they are, but they are also encouraged to build relationships with their local business communities.

"Students are required to talk to people in business and industry," says Miller. "They talk about training opportunities, examine training contracts so they can say, ‘Oh, this is how a contract looks, what the timeline is like, these are the people who approve it, this is what the money behind it looks like.'"


Flexible Learning for Working Learners

The real-world administrative experience that students in U of A's community college leadership development program gain is invaluable for future education leaders as they go on to fill important administrative roles.

What are those roles? "Student support services, enrollment management, student affairs, student conduct, business affairs, planning institutional research programs – anything within an administrative band," says Miller.

For students already working within the community college system, this program provides an advancement mechanism to positions that in many cases require getting a master's in education.

"The community college leadership program is a great fit for people looking to advance," says Miller. "It can be their pathway from lower staff to an assistant director to a director."

Since students are already working at community colleges, the U of A program is flexible, recognizing that combining work, school and life responsibilities is as challenging for education leaders as it is for the students they serve.

"It's asynchronous," Miller says of the program, "and they're all online." That means students can access the coursework whenever and wherever it is convenient for them.

Community college students talk in a classroom.

The program's flexibility even comes into play when it comes to application and enrollment. U of A's program runs two eight-week terms in the spring semester, two more in the fall, and another two five-week terms across the summer. Students can begin the program at any eight-week term, at their convenience. And they can set their own pace, taking one class at a time if that's a better fit for their schedule or career focus.

Miller compares the convenience of the U of A program to other graduate programs, where a February application would be too late for a fall semester start seven months down the road.

"In our program, if it is February and you wanted to get enrolled for the spring, we could still get you in the second eight-week term."

Like the community colleges U of A educates students to lead, accessibility is the program's watchword. The U of A's commitment to flexible learning is even applied to the culminating project of the master's degree: the capstone project.

"You don't have a comprehensive exam," says Miller. "You don't have to write a thesis. Instead, you design a project to improve some aspect of where you're working."

For instance, one program student was working at a community college serving a large population of indigenous students in Oklahoma. This student noticed that the dropout rate of indigenous students was high, so she devoted her capstone project to finding some solutions.

The student ran focus groups with enrolled indigenous students, asking questions such as, What do you like about being here? What do you not like about being here? What is it that would keep you here? What would make you leave?

She collected the answers, ran the numbers, analyzed the data, and built a set of recommendations for improving indigenous student retention that she presented to her chancellor.

Finding real-world solutions is what the capstone project is all about, Miller says. "It's about applying all your different classes to your workplace."

It's also the final lesson graduates of the U of A's program learn: to recognize the needs of their institutions and communities and have a demonstrable impact on the lives of those they serve.

Today's community colleges have a big mission that requires strong leadership. If you work in the community college system and are ready to take a leadership role, visit the U of A Master of Education in Community College Leadership program page to learn more.

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Master of Education in Community College Leadership

The demand for community college leaders is rising. You can prepare for these administrative roles through this unique online master’s degree program, the first in the region to focus on the development and enhancement of community college leaders.

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