But these workhorses of workforce development are facing some infrastructure issues of their own.
Pandemic-related declines in enrollment, particularly in hands-on skilled trades courses, have only made things worse for these long-overburdened and underfunded schools. And while Covid relief money has served as a godsend for financially strapped community colleges, administrators say, those one-time funds are depleting.
“This is the engine for growth in skilled workers doing these types of jobs,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. “[That engine], well, it’s sputtering.”
Despite these hurdles, many schools are taking innovative approaches to training tomorrow’s workers.
‘Shaken to the core’
There’s usually a pattern with community colleges during economic cycles, said Riley Acton, assistant professor of economics at Miami University of Ohio.
“Especially during times of recession, we see community college enrollments increase” both for high school graduates as well as displaced workers, she said.
But that didn’t happen during the pandemic.
“The pandemic has been totally different in this regard,” she said. “We actually saw community college enrollment decrease significantly.”
From the fall of 2019 through the fall of 2021, enrollment at public two-year schools fell 14.8%, the highest declines among postsecondary schools during that period, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data. By comparison, undergraduate enrollment declined 4% at public four-year institutions.
Public two-year schools are also at their lowest level of enrollment (7.7 million students) in nearly 20 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The biggest enrollment declines were seen among men. According to a working paper published last month by Northwestern’s Schanzenbach and Sarah Turner, a professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia, the drop was likely due to the disproportionate disruption that the pandemic had on skilled trades courses.
While most lecture courses were able to go virtual, it was nearly impossible for on-site labs and workshops, where students learn by working with tools, machinery and equipment.
“All of the hands-on courses were dramatically shaken to the core because we could not meet in person,” said Kendall Davis, a welding instructor at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City.
Davis said he had a 72% failure rate in the spring of 2020.
“When we finally did get together, with social distancing and masking, all the lectures and the information that we [studied] … they basically forgot all that information,” he said. “I almost had to reteach lecture courses, and it was quite a learning curve”
This drop-off in skilled trades courses will further disrupt a sector already starved for workers, Schanzenbach said.
“That pipeline has been interrupted,” she said.
And even though some restrictions have loosened, enrollment hasn’t fully rebounded. Some administrators attribute this to having to compete with the local job market, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.
School presidents have told the AACC that a lot of potential students are gravitating toward entry-level jobs that are now paying much higher wages, she said.
“If students are making between $18 to $25 an hour at an entry-level position, they’re not necessarily inclined to come to class,” she said.
If the negative fiscal and enrollment trends continue, it could lead to a downward spiral for schools that already are “on life support,” said Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
For some community colleges, the funding is tied to enrollment, he said. So if that enrollment slips, local and state funding could dwindle, which would result in fewer classes, fewer teachers and less services. That, in turn, could further reduce enrollment for schools that not only provide critical career training but also serve a more racially and socioeconomically diverse student base, he said.
“Long-term, that is a very troubling trend for them as individuals and for the nation as a whole,” he said.
Positioning for the future
Ten years ago, the budget at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City was $32 million.
“It’s now $30 [million],” said Kimberly Beatty, the college’s chancellor.
Rising inflation, has made it more challenging to pay for programs, she said.
The $70.6 million in pandemic relief funding that the Metropolitan Community College system received was critical in making repairs, starting programs and attracting employees, she said. But a lot of those costs are ongoing.
Fortunately, efforts that Beatty spearheaded five years ago have placed the college in a strong position to train for the infrastructure roles coming online.
MCC consolidated several schools and programs to create learning hubs. This included relocating career and technical education programs to a new state-of-the-art facility closer to the city center, with greater accessibility to bus lines and the public school district.
The Advanced Technical Skills Institute has doubled the capacity for programs, such as welding, and incorporates a variety of pandemic- and future-friendly technology efforts such as virtual reality training and outdoor labs.
As the pandemic relief funds are being drawn down, it’s not immediately clear what additional support may come on the federal level.
There is optimism by some in Congress that support for community colleges will proceed through other means.
Senator Tim Kaine, in an interview with CNN Business, noted three recent bill reintroductions: The JOBS Act, which would expand Pell Grant eligibility to students in career and technical education programs; the BUILDS Act, which includes provisions to connect businesses and education providers, such as schools, on curriculum development; and the ACCESS to Careers Act, which would include grants to community colleges.
“If you have an equity focus … we want to particularly be successful in communities that have missed opportunities,” Kaine said.
Community colleges, he said, could serve as the backbone for the nation’s critical infrastructure jobs.
And one potential model is being developed in his home state of Virginia, where the community college system recently partnered with trade organizations and businesses to launch the Virginia Infrastructure Academy. The institute will coordinate courses across the system’s 23 schools and work closely with industry partners to train workers in areas such as transportation, green energy, and broadband.
It follows on the heels of G3, a tuition assistance program for Virginians with low or modest incomes to receive workforce training in in-demand fields; and FastForward, a workforce training program with offerings lasting 6-to-12 weeks.
“I think the ‘Great Resignation’ that has gone on has really helped people open their eyes and ask questions about what type of career, what type of job satisfies me and makes me feel good about the choices I’ve made,” said John Downey, president of Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia. “And I think as people begin to reflect on that, community colleges are in a great position to say, ‘Hey, you can come here and get retrained in those areas that you’re excited about.’”
In preparation, Blue Ridge and other community colleges are also trying to address “wraparound services” — needs such as transportation, housing, food access and child care — by partnering with community providers to help reduce the potential barriers to enrollment.
“The jobs are here, the training is here, ” he said. “What is challenging is that people find it very hard to stop what they’re doing long enough to get the training they need to get a better job.”