What higher education can learn from community colleges

What higher education can learn from community colleges

2022-07-13T07:41:50-04:00March 16th, 2022|Economy, Education, Pittsburgh|

Writer: Joshua Andino

5 min read March 2022 — Higher education, beset by a number of challenges, is undergoing a shift that sees community colleges taking a pivotal role in the future of the sector, especially after the last two years made it necessary to confront long-standing issues. 

Questions regarding affordability, accessibility and the viability of higher education as an enterprise have come to the forefront in dramatic fashion. As entire industries have shifted to remote work, students wonder why they continue to pay full tuition for online courses taken from a dorm room or at home. Questions over food security, broadband access and mental health have superseded the typical classroom discussion.

The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues, resulting in a serious impact on enrollment, the lifeblood of the industry that was already under strain. The declining rates, brought into sharp relief over the course of the pandemic, have forced innovation at educational institutions across the country as potential and current students alike reassess what the value of an education is, and how they would prefer to go about receiving one. 

The shift is most evident in the community college environment, where more flexible schedules, stackable credentials and an attunement to the needs of industries in their local communities have seen the schools take center stage amid labor shortages and the ever-growing need for tradespeople, as well as student and employee demands for flexible schedules and reassessed work-life balance priorities. Community colleges have seen their reputations burnished by providing what they have always done – offer real learning for real life through workforce development programs and certificates and support and savings all along the way.

Dr. Shelly Moore, vice president of Academic Affairs and provost at Community College of Beaver County (CCBC), explained the shift to Invest. “The pandemic has caused people to consider whether attending a college or university is in their best interest at this time. Students and employers are looking for ways that people can obtain credentials and move into the workforce as quickly as possible. The cost to attend a community college is often significantly lower than attending a university.” Moore also noted the impact on those already in the workforce, saying, “Others, particularly working adults, are making decisions about whether to stay in the workforce or determining if it is time to upskill or change careers altogether. Approximately 70% of students in higher education now work at least part-time. Employers are struggling to maintain employees. This has resulted in the need for higher education to adapt and to provide shorter, more efficient, and affordable pathways into the workforce.” 

Those efficient and more affordable pathways often include these types of credentials, which often stack to allow a convenient pathway to two- and four-year degrees or industry certifications and subsequent employment. For the Greater Pittsburgh region, that means more qualified employees entering the workforce as investors and local businesses alike are eager for the area’s post-COVID recovery, even as the region was already undergoing strong economic growth. Technology and healthcare are now center stage in Pittsburgh and construction follows as new facilities, offices and residents relocate to the area. 

CCBC has capitalized on the shift by providing several courses and credential programs, with its Process Technology (PTECH) program being key to students desiring the greatest bang for their buck. “The PTECH Program provides a broad-based education. In addition to process technology, the curriculum includes sciences, mathematics, information technology, general education, and mechanical aptitude content,” said Paul Alwin, CCBC’s lead faculty member for the Process Technology program.  

John Goberish, CCBC’s dean of the School of Industrial Technology and Continuing Education, described a long list of successful industry partnerships CCBC developed, giving students a real-world education for real-world opportunities. “The success of CCBC’s programs/areas, including Aviation, Construction Technology and Management, Process Technology, Engineering, IT/Computer Science and Nursing, and their graduates are all grounded in industry partnerships with companies, such as American Airlines, Heritage Valley Health Systems, Mascaro, Shell, BASF, Styropek/Nova and Energy Harbor, that help shape curricula, provide scholarships and other support and create career connections for our students and alumni.”

Goberish also highlighted how industry partnerships have long guided the development of CCBC’s curriculum. In 2016, Shell announced its commitment to build a $6 billion ethane cracker plant in Potter Township, Pennsylvania, only a few minutes away from CCBC’s campus. The need for a highly trained and skilled workforce was immediate. With the plant underway and 600 permanent employees expected upon completion, the PTECH program began its development in 2015 with key aspects of curriculum design, identification of equipment and software needs, and with guest lectures from industry experts. 

Pittsburgh-based Mascaro Construction provides another example of the success CCBC, and community colleges see in developing talent pipelines that address the needs of local businesses. Allie Chornick, Mascaro’s Human Resource Generalist and in charge of workforce development for the firm told Invest: “Recruiting and retaining talent has been a heightened stressor for HR professionals in the wake of the on-going labor shortage. We’ve had to rethink and strategize creative approaches for not only reaching eligible candidates, but also piquing the interest of individuals that haven’t previously considered the industry. The beauty of community colleges is the variety of options and offerings that allow people to choose their own path and build on the level of experience they already have or want, much like a career in construction. 

Justin Brooks, an associate professor for the Mascaro Construction Program at CCBC, outlined the pressures facing the construction industry and why the programs community colleges provide are key for the future success of businesses and the wider region. “First, for a decade now, skilled construction workers have been one of the hardest roles to fill. A recent survey from the Associated General Contractors of Americas showed that 54% of construction firms are finding it hard to fill both hourly and salary roles on a job site. Firms will have to focus on recruiting new talent into the industry, as well as learning how to complete jobs with fewer workers. A second trend is the exponential growth in recent technology, new materials, and new methods of building. These innovative technologies and methods require a new mindset in a typically antiquated industry, and to stay competitive in the market, firms will need more workers to receive training in these areas.”

While the programs themselves offer strong opportunities for students, student support services, highlighted as a key need throughout the pandemic, will be key in their success. “It’s hard to study if you’re hungry,” is less an adage and more a statement of fact. Here too community colleges have shown a great deal of flexibility and resolve in providing the most for their students, with food pantries becoming a mainstay and mental health counseling being provided. CCBC’s Angela Hamilton, vice president of student affairs, detailed in her statement to Invest the steps CCBC had taken to ensure the best outcomes for students. “Through community engagement and partnership, we can address our students’ most basic needs of food, clothing, and mental health. At any point in the semester, a student can visit our food pantry for free dry goods to help feed their family, as well as coats, gloves, and other clothing items. Students can also meet with our mental health counselor to learn about community resources and coping skills.”

Even as the region around Pittsburgh prepares itself for major investments and what’s anticipated to be a strong recovery, the area and businesses within it need the labor and talent to make it happen. While community colleges may have once been considered a last resort, they have seen a certain primacy emerge, with strong industry relationships and flexible, real-world-focused curricula having long-provided schools such as CCBC a thorough understanding of what it is that students want, and employers need to be successful. 

While higher education tackles key issues on everything from flexibility to affordability, the industry can learn a thing or two from Community College of Beaver County and others like it. 

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