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Changing the Enrollment Calculus

Community colleges attract working learners with a focus on skills rather than credentials.

North Carolina community colleges lure former students back with a pitch of “better skills, better jobs” and an open mind about short-term credentials. Also, wages grow for workers without four-year degrees, although community college credentials are misaligned with the labor market.

Wilkes County, NC. Photo by Elijah Mears on Unsplash

Reconnecting to Get a Better Job

Enrollment growth at community colleges is leading a post-pandemic recovery, fueled chiefly by the dual enrollment of high school students. But older students also are enrolling in community college in greater numbers.

Working learners aged 30 and up accounted for the sector’s second biggest gain (4.3%) this spring, after the 10.2% surge in high school students under 18, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

Community colleges in North Carolina have been successful at tapping into a desire to give college another shot among their former students who didn’t complete.

The NC Reconnect program’s marketing campaign runs under the tagline of “Better Skills, Better Jobs.” The pitch resonates with an emerging sentiment that isn’t focused on the college experience, or even attaining a credential, says Mike Krause, a senior advisor to the John M. Belk Endowment, which helps fund and support the re-enrollment project.

“My sense is that there is growing interest in attending college for the purpose of skill attainment, as opposed to credential attainment,” says Krause, the former executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “The propensity to enroll is driven by tangible employment and wage outcomes.”

Don’t Boil the Ocean: Begun in 2021, NC Reconnect has posted extraordinary numbers. The program has reached out to more than 30K former students, with a high contact rate of 30%. More than 22% of those reached eventually enrolled.

A big part of that success, says Krause, is the strategy of targeted outreach to a group of working learners with some college and no credential, rather than a “boil the ocean” call center approach. He also praises InsideTrack, a nonprofit that offers coaching and re-enrollment, among other services. Outreach InsideTrack has conducted for the project has been compassionate and effective, says Krause, with a focus on relationship building.

NC Reconnect has served as an accelerant for existing work to better serve working learners by its college partners, including the state’s Blue Ridge Community College. The project is expanding, with five more colleges signing on to receive support through funding, research, marketing, and direct student outreach.

Landing a Good Job: Community colleges are incubators of the American Dream, says Krause. Where else can a person enroll in a manufacturing technology program and emerge weeks later with fundamentally different employment reality?

“It’s hard to ask an adult learner who has already enrolled in college but didn’t obtain the life change they had hoped for to go right back to the same campus,” Krause says. “But we are seeing they will absolutely return if they sense a new opportunity to provide intergenerational success for their kids and families via a short-term credential.”

Fully 30% of the students who re-enrolled through the NC Reconnect program are pursuing certificates. And many are seeking skills rather than a degree.

One way employers can do more to advance the program’s work is by sharing their mid- and long-term hiring needs with college leaders, Krause says, so students are equipped with the information they need to choose a credential program.

Earn-and-learn opportunities also are a big draw. Krause points to one NC Reconnect institution, Wayne Community College, which is running an ad campaign for their apprenticeship program that makes clear that learners will be paid while they are enrolled and en route to a job with a partner employer.

The Kicker: “This may totally change the decision calculus for a working parent to return to campus,” says Krause.

Employees First in Michigan

Michigan also has been aggressive with encouraging working learners to enroll in community college. As Ethan Bakuli reported last week for Work Shift, the state is doubling down on a free tuition push for its two-year colleges.

A centerpiece of that work is Michigan Reconnect, a $30M last-dollar scholarship for working learners that was created in 2021. The state recently approved a $70M expansion of the program, lowering the minimum age limit to 21 from 25. Michigan also offers Futures for Frontliners, a free-tuition program for essential workers.

The two scholarships have helped boost enrollment, with 46K recipients enrolling at their in-district community colleges. But more than 157K Michiganders applied for those grants, Bakuli reports. And fewer than 6K have earned a degree through Michigan Reconnect.

A new $45M funding stream from the state seeks to help more students get to the finishing line. The competitive grants will be available to the state’s public colleges and students. They are designed to incentivize colleges to adopt proven student success strategies to dramatically increase graduation rates.

Employers also can help, said Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association. The vast majority of Michigan Reconnect recipients work and see themselves as employees first, rather than students.

“We can or should help employers promote this as a benefit to their employees,” she told Bakuli, “and encourage employers to provide incentives for graduation and completion.”

Earnings Grow for the Non-Degreed

Young adults without four-year degrees have seen significant wage gains in the past decade—a reversal of the preceding decades of decline, fueled in part by one of the tightest labor markets in history. Those gains, however, haven’t been large enough to narrow either the income or wealth gap, as young workers with bachelor’s degrees have also seen their income rise, albeit more slowly.

Also, it’s unclear if gains for less-educated workers will continue if the labor market softens—especially given that the supply of sub-bachelor’s credentials is misaligned with labor market demand.

Those are the top-line findings from two new reports, one from Pew Research Center and the other from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“We have not had such a prolonged hot labor market in a very long time, with only the experience in the 1990s coming close,” Brad Hershbein, senior economist and deputy director of research at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, told Work Shift.

Such conditions almost always increase employment and wages for less-educated and more economically vulnerable workers—which is what the new Pew Research found has happened over the past decade.

Read the full story over at Work Shift. Here are a few of the highlights:

Young adults without a four-year degree are more likely to be working than a decade ago. 

  • Labor-market participation for young men without a four-year degree has largely stabilized, after decades of steady decline beginning in 1970. 

  • Participation for young women with the same education level has not just stabilized but increased in the past decade, after sharp drops beginning in 2000.

They also are earning more when they work. 

  • Young men working full-time with only a high school diploma made median wages of $45K last year, up significantly from just above $39K in 2014. And those with some college but no bachelors earned $50K, up slightly from $49K a decade ago.

  • Young women working full-time with only a high school education saw their median wages climb to $36K, up from just shy of $31K. And those with some college saw median wages grow to $40K, up from less than $38K in 2014. (All wages are in 2022 dollars.)

Where We’re Going: However, Hershbein says signs from recent months’ wage data suggest those gains may already be softening. And history shows that patterns of wage growth can shift dramatically depending on the business cycle.

“There’s reason to be skeptical that the recent shifts favoring faster wage growth for less-educated workers are permanent,” he says.

Aligning Credentials

Amid the tight labor market, many states have increased their investment in short-term credentials designed to quickly move residents into high-demand jobs. States like Virginia and Alabama have focused new money and credentials on industry demand—but much of what’s on offer across the country is poorly aligned with business needs, according to Georgetown’s research on 565 local labor markets.

The researchers found that at least 50% of the associate degrees or other credentials would need to be in different fields from today in order to align supply with available jobs.

The findings echo other recent research calling for employers to have a bigger role in shaping postsecondary education programs and “co-producing talent.” —By Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

Career Ladders
Lower-income workers tend to move between employers more often than do wealthier ones. But their high rates of labor market mobility do not lead to higher earnings, with poorer workers being employed by worse-paying firms as they age, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Careers of richer workers, however, can be described as climbing the job ladder, with infrequent employer changes and wages going up steeply as they age.

Employer Partnerships
Competitive federal and state grant programs can incentivize colleges and regional employers to work together to build programs that prepare students for high-paying, in-demand, high-growth jobs, according to a brief from the Project on Workforce at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The report, which pointed to the Good Jobs Challenge as an example of this sort of grant, is part of a series of briefs on how to improve college-to-job connections.

Labor Productivity
Sectors that are particularly exposed to artificial intelligence, including finance, customer service, and software development, are seeing 4.8 times the average growth in labor productivity, according to a PwC analysis of 500M job ads from 15 countries. Jobs are still growing in AI-exposed occupations, but 27% slower on average. The analysis said this could be good news for countries that face shrinking working-aged populations and unmet labor needs.

AI Education Hubs
A bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate would create AI education hubs at community colleges and AI guidance for K-12 teachers, while expanding scholarships and professional development. The proposal from Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, and Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, also focuses on quantum computing. Cantwell has recently introduced other AI-related bills.

Nondegree Credentials
A new law in Colorado requires state agencies to use a framework for quality nondegree credentials and to integrate it into state education and workforce systems. The legislation also requires the alignment of stackable credential pathways and apprenticeship programs with international classification standards. Another new law seeks to improve college credit transfer by guaranteeing that more courses count toward majors.

AI and Competencies
The time-based Carnegie unit has outlived its utility, Tim Knowles, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, told the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess in an Education Week interview. “Advances in AI and computing efficiency now allow us to build new measurement models and create digital environments that mirror real-word scenarios,” he said. “It allows us to evaluate, at scale, the nuances of not just what people know but how they think.”

Please keep the tips coming. I’ll be cranking away until July, when I plan to pause the newsletter for a couple weeks. I’ll spend that time wrapping up a move from Maryland to Columbus, Ohio. —PF