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Community college resiliency: combating declines in student persistence and retention with effective, multifaceted strategies

This blog summarizes the key takeaways from our fiscal resiliency podcast, episode seven.

Higher Ed Advisor podcast host and industry practice leader Dave Capitano and higher education managing director Christine Smith recently welcomed Lenore Rodicio, a nationally recognized higher education leader and strategist, to our fiscal resiliency podcast series.

After several podcast discussions about the entire higher education landscape, we dive deep into creative resiliency strategies for community colleges to consider coming out of the pandemic and for the broader future.

Many institutions faced enrollment declines before the pandemic, and the decline has continued even as campuses are seeing certain situations get back on track over the last few months. Enrollment challenges are not limited to community colleges, but the current environment has substantially exacerbated downward trends in their enrollment numbers and has disproportionately impacted certain student populations.

Community colleges are encouraged to follow proactive approaches to re-attract students and remain competitive. First and foremost, community colleges should pivot to “strategic mode.” Understandably, institutions have been very reactive over the past year – creating or reinstating emergency response task forces, shutting down in-person activities, moving their courses online, retraining faculty for virtual learning and quickly implementing many other changes motivated by COVID-19.

Now though, with restrictions lifting in most states and campuses planning to return to normal, community colleges should switch their mindsets back to focus on effective, long-term strategy.

A long-term view

One way institutions can position themselves for long-term fiscal resiliency is by investing in critical infrastructure. Community colleges should pursue available funds and strategically invest them in developing technology that supports students’ unique needs and institutional growth. The technology required to support more complex financial arrangements as well as more complex and diverse student supports is much different than legacy information technology infrastructure. Faculty members also need additional training in how to effectively deliver online learning in a more permanent format because the demand for flexible education models (virtual and hybrid) is continuing to trend upward, especially among the student populations served by community colleges.  

Community colleges also need to pursue alternative revenue streams to counter the current and anticipated continued decline in traditionally aged post-high school student populations. Being able to offer flexible and agile degree pathways that fit the individual needs and circumstances of each student will be critical to the sustainability of many institutions, and community colleges are in a unique position to offer such pathways. Furthermore, offering non-credit and/or stackable certificate programming, for instance, is another notable way for institutions to attract students, especially those seeking additional workforce skills development. Partnerships with local universities (as well as K-12 school systems) to build a recruitment pipeline into the institution, or even a two-way pipeline, is critical to offering the required flexibility and seamless degree pathways sought by students.

Additionally, building private-public partnerships can create ties with business and industry leaders in the community. Perhaps a community college’s facility space can be rented out to bring in revenue, either in exchange for money or for internship and other career development opportunities for the students. Workforce development programming and working in unison with the community college’s regular academic programming is essential for the economic recovery of the college – and the community.

If community colleges are going to stay relevant while maintaining enrollment that drives fiscal resiliency, they are going to need to recruit more adult learners. Workforce development initiatives are a great way to do that. In today’s market, as workers are showing a resistance to returning to low-wage jobs, colleges can reach out to them and offer an opportunity to upscale their skill sets. The key is to align programs to specific needs within the community. Community colleges should work with industry partners and the local chamber of commerce to develop programs that align with the workforce needs of the region. In particular, community colleges should find partners that offer education benefits for their employees. This is a win-win for all parties involved.

Too many degrees?

In today’s higher education environment, there is somewhat of a “blurring of the lines” taking place, as states allow more community colleges to offer four-year bachelor degrees and more bachelor degree-granting institutions to offer associate degrees. There are several pros to this movement, but with any enterprise-wide change, the devil is always in the details. The trend encourages collaboration between the local legislature, universities and community colleges, and must be implemented strategically and comprehensively, with student success as the top priority.

The key factor in the long-term success of this concept is limiting the approval of degrees to areas where there is an actual need for additional knowledge and skillsets. For instance, is there a demand for healthcare professionals in that region? If the answer is yes, then community colleges need to consider how much of that demand is currently being met by other public and private institutions in the area. If there’s still a significant workforce gap, then accessible and flexible degree programs should be developed at whatever level and type of partnership that assures an adequate, but not excessive, supply of workers specifically trained for those positions.

Pathways to a resilient future

The future of community colleges will look very different than the past, or even the present. If the last 16+ months have taught us anything about higher education, it’s that the industry can be flexible when push comes to shove.

Moving forward, the most successful institutions will be colleges and universities that adapt to individual student needs and circumstances, market demand and workforce trends, including the transformation of remote and hybrid work. It is critical for institutions to be responsive to regional and national labor needs. If the future of the workforce is a remote one, community colleges should help prepare students for careers with remote learning opportunities.

Given the largest enrollment declines have been among underrepresented populations, community colleges will need to refocus on recruitment and retention strategies of those students, including understanding of unique needs and learning requirements. The current landscape has demonstrated that institutions must consider the needs of each individual student. It’s a daunting task, but community colleges have to be attentive and responsive to the specific needs of each student within the context of how that student can ultimately contribute to their community’s economic recovery and success.

Competency-based education is another pathway. There are several benefits to competency-based education, but the challenge for community colleges lies in how to package it in a way that attracts adult learners. Community colleges have an opportunity to develop a program that relies less on required graduation credits, and instead looks at how to build a degree focused on competencies. In this method, the focus is on offering skills development opportunities, certifications and degrees that respond to non-traditional student needs. By taking this approach, colleges can also show a better return on resource investments when considering student success indicators such as completions. 

No matter the approach a community college takes to achieve fiscal resiliency, collaboration is key. Leaders must look at individualized student needs and work together to meet the outcomes that each student expects in a two-year (or possibly four-year) education. Every student requires a little bit of everything that college offers (education, career guidance, financial aid assistance, etc.). Providing a holistic approach to attract, enroll and retain students requires cross-functional teams and clearly established roles and responsibilities. By thinking about the “whole continuum” of student needs and expectations, colleges can ensure a variety of voices (i.e., operations, academics, student life, etc.) to effectively execute creative, strategic and multi-faceted solutions that provide the flexibility required to increase enrollment, generate revenue and support student success in 2021 and beyond.

For more information, or to learn how Baker Tilly’s higher education team can help your institution work towards a fiscally resilient future, contact our team.

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