NORFOLK, NE – Community colleges across the nation continually hear of the need for its services as they work on the front lines of ensuring that America’s workforce is adequately prepared … prepared with its students who possess the vital skillsets to fill these jobs. However, there are many obstacles facing several of these students, many times, through no fault of their own.
Community college leaders in Nebraska are addressing how to make a community college education accessible and more affordable for people of all ages who desire to earn a degree. A conversation on accessibility took place at the 2018 annual meeting of the Nebraska Community College Association (NCCA).
“We are about to embark on conversations on making Nebraska community colleges accessible to everyone … and to further ensure that our completers do not leave college with unmanageable debt,” said Dr. Michael Chipps, president of Northeast Community College, as he opened the meeting on Northeast’s Norfolk Campus earlier this week. “Open access has been one of our primary mantras … and today we need to consider whether that still holds true for all people.”
The conversation comes at a critical time. Reports indicate there are 6.1 million jobs that businesses cannot fill because they can’t find workers with the correct education and training. Of that number, 58,000 job openings exist in Nebraska, with some indications that it could be higher.
Bryan Sloan, president and CEO of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the community college representatives, there is an urgency to address the issue. He said workforce development is the number one issue impacting Nebraska, far and away ahead of matters pertaining to property and income taxes.
“I can tell you if we’re going to solve the property tax issue it won’t be by anything the Legislature does, but by whether we solve this workforce issue. No GDP (gross domestic product), no property tax. No GDP, no solutions for income tax. No GDP, no solutions for education and health care for the public in the way we would like.”
While Sloan credits community colleges with having strategies in place to tackle the workforce issue, there is much more that has to be done in all sectors.
“Nobody is doing a better job on workforce development than this group right in this room. But if we keep doing what we’re doing, it’s not going to be enough.”
“Because employers are going to have one of two choices – either build their own institutions, which will be primarily online, or more likely, move their businesses out of state to places where they can get a trained workforce quickly.”
J. Noah Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees, said making college accessible is a necessary component to develop outcomes that allow students to become productive employees in the workplace.
“You cannot sustain your institutions if you don’t have vibrant, local economies. You cannot have vibrant, local economies if you don’t have people who are educated and trained to do the work, to make the wages and to pay the taxes, which are the lifeblood of our sector.”
Brown told the community college audience that they need to begin to think on how they can “rethink and resculpt” what they need to do to stay in the game in order to educate and train the next generation of workers. He said that doesn’t mean they should create new degrees, but offer degrees of relevance that are portable, transferrable, industry-based, and occupationally-driven.
Although open access drives community college enrollment, access to a higher education degree is a stumbling block to those who face the financial means to do so. However, one program to make higher education more accessible to fill the workforce needs is gaining momentum.
“College Promise,” a program in many forms, covers tuition and fees and provides support to help students succeed. Funding comes from a variety of sources including states, cities, individual colleges, and philanthropic organizations.
At the NCCA discussion, Robyn Hiestand, director of research and policy for the College Promise Campaign, said there are currently over 200 college promise-type programs in 44 states, while 17 statewide programs are awaiting approval.
“The campaign is promoting the value of a community college and demonstrating that an investment in College Promise is an investment in the prosperity and vitality of our communities,” she said. “By removing barriers and providing students the financial, social, and academic support they need to succeed, Promise programs are expanding opportunity for students across the country.”
Data shows that individual College Promise programs, some as much as 30-years-old, have made a significant impact on many communities.
Dr. Lori Cortez, dean of institutional advancement at Sauk Valley Community College (IL), said graduation rates have risen at institutions with the program.
“There has been an increase in college enrollment and college completion, because students are no longer seeing just a high school diploma in the end zone. It’s about creating a college-going culture, and most importantly, that college completion culture.”
Two weeks ago, the Sauk Valley Board of Trustees voted to institute its own College Promise with a goal of raising $10 million. Cortez said they have had buy-in from her community to institute the campaign because it understands the end goal - providing the region with a viable workforce.
“We have been speaking with community philanthropists, business leaders and our K-12 partners. Our local business owners are so excited about this program. One school superintendent told me, “This is the saving grace for my kids. Put me on a billboard to tell this story.”
Cortez said just in the short time the board approved the plan, the College has already received a commitment of $50,000 towards the promise program.
The Sauk Valley College Promise program has stipulations students must meet, including maintaining at least a 2.5 grade point average, 25 hours of community service in each of their four-years of high school, apply for scholarships, and graduate on time, among others.
Cortez said an educated and trained workforce translates into families thinking twice about leaving their area because they know their children can get “earned tuition.”
She said College Promise programs are much more than students completing degrees.
“It is about keeping people in their area, bringing new people into your area. It’s about economic vitality by having a qualified workforce, a higher per capita income and higher property values. It’s about creating opportunities for students to serve and rediscover their communities.”
Dr. Lori Cortez, dean of institutional advancement at Sauk Valley Community College (IL), (left) Robyn Hiestand, director of research and policy for the College Promise Campaign, and J. Noah Brown, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees, speak about a program that is designed to make higher education better accessible and affordable during a meeting of the Nebraska Community College Association (NCCA) in Norfolk. The NCCA held its annual meeting at Northeast Community College recently.