Community Colleges as Economic Engines: Opportunity America

Pam Sornson, JD

By Pam Sornson, JD

Perhaps only two other circumstances have disrupted America’s economy as thoroughly as has the COVID-19 pandemic: the 1929-1931 Great Depression and the Second World War. Each of those events caused immense upheavals across the nation’s economy, resulting in both devastating losses and unexpected gains, as whole industrial sectors shrank or grew in response. 

Those events also impacted the lives of millions of workers. Most of them were able to embrace the positive changes and pursue occupations and goals that may not have been available in the pre-war/Depression eras. Mid-20th Century researchers dubbed this shift in earning capacity ‘economic mobility’ as people began making more money per year than their parents. Economic mobility soon became a hallmark of the ‘American Dream,’ whereby a child born into a family in the bottom 20% of the nation’s average annual income bracket could, with the right tools and a reasonable portion of good fortune, rise to the top income bracket over the course of their working life. Those moving up through those brackets were ‘upwardly’ mobile, while those who slipped lower were ‘downwardly’ mobile.    



Achieving the full promise of that upward economic mobility is possible only when other compatible ‘mobility’ factors are available, however:

‘Relational’ mobility describes the individual’s personal capacity to move beyond their current economic status based on their skills, talents, and abilities. Those who can discipline their efforts and resources to achieve their higher goals are often able to gain higher levels of personal success than those who don’t have those abilities or drive.  

‘Social’ mobility reflects the opportunity to move into a different social ‘class’ or status that is perceived as ‘higher’ than that to which a person is born. Social mobility often flows from the economic success of one’s parents; children born to wealthier families usually have easier access to higher education and other resources, which then improves their capacity to improve their earning capabilities over those of their families. 

‘Structural’ mobility refers to how well workers adapt to the changing occupational needs of the economy. Those who maintain skillsets relevant to emerging industries will enjoy the opportunity to move from occupation to occupation, regardless of their actual work.

When all these various forms of mobility come together, the odds go up that a person will improve their station in life. Gaps or lacks in any one mobility ‘sector’ can impede or prevent any upward momentum altogether. And when people don’t have the capacity or opportunity for upward mobility, local, regional, and national economies tend to shrink. Ergo, the concept of ‘mobility’ in all its forms can directly reflect a community’s economic capacity and opportunities. 




Opportunity America: Framing a Response to the COVID-19 Impact on Mobility

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the discussion around social, relational, structural, and economic mobility more critical than ever. Hundreds of thousands of businesses are shuttered, and millions of people are out of work, some permanently. Many of those suffering these economic hardships have lost whatever economic momentum they may have garnered over their careers, and they now find themselves in a declining spiral of downward mobility. For the country to recover, society must address the economic challenges created by COVID as those are experienced through these various ‘mobility’ lenses.

One agency taking on the challenge is Opportunity America (OA), a Washington D.C. think tank dedicated to developing policies directed at improving the resources that drive economic mobility upward: skills, career options, training, business ownership, and entrepreneurship. The group’s primary focus is research that grounds sound economic and social policies capable of steering the country to achieve higher growth goals. OA has determined that one of the country’s most appropriate resources for combating the recession and rebuilding the economy – and thereby generating necessary economic ‘mobility’ factors – is its community colleges.  



The Indispensable Institution – Reimagining Community College

In its seminal report, “The Indispensable Institution – Reimagining Community College,” OA explains why America’s 1,100 two-year colleges have the best chance of rehabilitating both the labor force and the economy. Crafted by a working group of 22 education, economic, and social research experts, the report shines a light on the educational, social, and societal elements contributing to the American working class’s slow decline. It also provides recommendations for turning that decline around by reimagining its community colleges as workforce development engines to reinvent and revitalize the nation’s economy. Doing so will shift the focus away from the colleges’ traditional goal – transferring its students to a four-year school – to that of building a globally recognized talent pipeline that stands on its own as a high-quality, educationally excellent workforce resource. 

As a template for consideration and future planning, the report’s eleven recommendations address the challenges that have evolved within traditional higher education processes and rethinks them into opportunities for renewed growth and impetus. It looks at how community colleges have operated in the past and the social and economic implications of their limitations. The recommendations themselves provide clearly defined steps forward that will require effort from the schools, their leaders, their communities, and their governmental allies. 



Social and Policy Recommendations (identified by report number)

1.  Connect educational programming to local industrial demand

Most community colleges have designed their curricula and programming to feed into their four-year university partners’ academic requirements, and too many of those provide little or no work-based skills upon which the student can build a career. Instead, the OA suggests that redirecting those courses to provide the exact skills and training needed by local businesses gets those industries the trained labor force they need when they need it. It also builds a job market that’s attractive to learners looking for a comfortable future that doesn’t require a four-year university degree. 

2.  Recognize the needs of mid-career adults

Many older learners need to acquire new skills to find work in today’s evolved marketplace. They may be wanting to improve their fortunes in their existing careers, or, due to COVID or other economic causes, their previous occupation no longer exists, and they’re starting anew. Flexible class and course scheduling and enhanced credentialing opportunities provide them with stepping stones to these new positions. 

3.  Connect admissions to employment, not graduation

Colleges should no longer tolerate ‘unemployed graduates’ as acceptable outcomes for their students.

4.  Engage local businesses in the learning process  

Even the best-trained teacher can’t match the depth of knowledge of the working professional. Local businesses know what they need for skilled workers, in both the short and long term. They are excellent resources for colleges that are redesigning their offerings. 

10.  Integrate the community college with local job-training programs

Public agencies frequently offer training programs for local citizens, which can, in some cases, overlap with programs provided by the local community college. This duplication of effort and cost is unnecessary. Instead, consider collaborating on what programs local industries need and which public or college resource should be the training provider. Building in equal standards across both systems ensures high-quality workers emerge from both. 

11.  Direct public funding toward programs tied to regional economic growth

Every region hosts a cluster of industries that thrive in its unique geographic and political environment. Community colleges that design their studies to drive those industries forward will build a healthy future for both those businesses and their graduates. Governments can tie public education funding to achieving those goals.



Internal College Considerations

Inside each school, the report suggests several changes that will facilitate the transition from its traditional practices to those which support this forward-thinking vision. 

5.  Build on foundational skills and career-focused competencies

Foundational skills include problem-solving, communication capacity, critical thinking, and basic research abilities. Job-focused competencies like applied math, teamwork training, situational analytics, and time management improve every worker’s productivity, regardless of their actual work. 

6.  Include work-based learning

Apprenticeships, internships, and job-related exposures all provide learning opportunities that are unavailable in a traditional classroom teaching environment. Colleges should actively seek the funding and partnerships needed to support such learning opportunities.

One of the pillars of Pasadena City College’s Workforce Development department is its work-based learning officeProgram Manager Jacqueline Javier shares her efforts to connect PCC students with valuable work experience before completing their studies.    

7.  Recognize the value of non-credit education

Non-credit education frequently provides the ‘just-in-time’ training needed to get into a new job. However, without accreditation, those efforts don’t also feed into a certification program that provides assurances for employers. Learners would benefit when both their credited and non-credited efforts are recognized.  

8.  Offer valuable credentials

Building on the nob-credit recognition is the need for credentialing opportunities that demonstrate value in the current job market. Tying those credentials to existing industry standards ensures both workers and employers that the education offered is appropriate and qualified.  

9.  Recognize student needs

It’s a challenging world these days, and many prospective community college students must balance family and economic challenges with gaining an education. Streamlining educational efforts through well-defined course and program descriptions give students a map to follow that has a reasonable expectation of both college success and future employment. For older and working learners, recognizing skills and abilities already mastered can enhance the end diploma and resume. 

The national, regional, and local economies in 2021 will be vastly different from those that existed even just one year ago. How the country builds itself back better than before depends on harnessing its existing assets in new, more productive ways. Its community colleges can play a significant – potentially critical – role in that evolution, and Opportunity America’s report provides insights and guidance on how they might move toward those goals.  

You can listen to a discussion between Tamar Jacoby, the Founder of Opportunity America, and Salvatrice Cummo, Executive Director of PCC’s Economic and Workforce Development (PCC EWD) department on PCC EWD podcast episode 25.  


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