Community college enrollment has been falling for years.
Some higher education leaders blame the economic recovery, but in an article for Inside Higher Ed, Jim Jacobs offers an alternative explanation: adults still aren't seeing how community colleges can help them get better job.
Jacobs points to a 2016 Public Agenda survey that found Americans are losing faith in the value of a college education. According to the survey, only 42% of Americans view college as a gateway to success in the job market.
When adults do express interest in community colleges, Jacobs argues they're often looking for something very specific: noncredit workforce training.
Drawing on his experience as president emeritus of Macomb Community College and research affiliate with the Community College Research Center, Jacobs suggests five ways community colleges can better serve adult students.
Jacobs encourages colleges to build pathways to jobs at local employers—and to get as specific and granular as possible about what those employers need employees to learn. For example, he argues that in southeast Michigan, programs that prepare students for cybersecurity jobs in the automotive industry will be more competitive than programs that merely train students for cybersecurity jobs generally.
Many adult students start community college in noncredit courses, Jacobs explains. But as they learn more about the institution, they may want to go farther with their studies, earning a degree or other credential. Jacobs recommends building or improving internal articulation agreements to make it easier for adult students to move from non-credit to credit-bearing programs.
Comprehensive orientation and advising programs serve the needs of younger students, but they can be more than many adult students need—especially adults who have been to college before, Jacobs writes. He argues that adult students are much more interested in mentor-style relationships, where they can get advice for juggling work, school, and family demands.
During the Great Recession, many employers eliminated their worker training programs, and they have not yet revived them. Jacobs argues that this means community colleges have a major opportunity to partner with employers on professional development programs
There's a significant population of adults who have taken some college classes but never received a degree, Jacobs notes. For example, roughly 25% of adults in Michigan fall into this category, according to one estimate. Many of these students are interested in pursuing bachelor's degrees, Jacobs argues, and community colleges can recruit them by serving as a pathway to a four-year institution. He recommends establishing strong transfer agreements and marketing it to these students (Jacobs, Inside Higher Ed, 10/9).