I have witnessed firsthand how community colleges have changed lives.
Following a five-year tenure at city hall with the former president of the New York City Council, who ran for mayor and was defeated, I landed a job at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), one of seven community colleges in the City University of New York.
In my seven years working to support the college in multiple capacities, one of my joys was to plan and orchestrate the annual graduation ceremonies. I’ve witnessed the power of a community college in changing the lives of New York City residents.
Each year, I have seen multiple generations of families walking across the stage with pride, with degree and/or certificate in hand, ready to assume jobs as nurses, occupational therapists, professionals equipped for the hospitality industry, cyber security professionals, information technology workers and emergency medical technicians. I have also seen eager business majors ready to assume jobs in corporations, nonprofits, and municipal and state governments. These jobs give city residents an avenue to achieve middle class status.
BMCC is only one of the thousands of community colleges across the United States that are making real change in the lives millions of city residents across the country.
Mayors and Community Colleges Collaborate to Drive Innovation
Mayors, city councilmembers and other local elected officials have an enormous opportunity to partner with their local community colleges to help boost their workforce and local economies. They have the power of leadership and convening authority to bring key stakeholders together to effect change in their cities. For more than a decade, the National League of Cities (NLC) has seen firsthand what is possible when mayors and community colleges work hand-in-hand with other sectors around shared visions and goals that give city residents the skills they need to land good jobs that drive strong local labor markets.
So, what makes community colleges drivers for innovation in postsecondary attainment?
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Community Colleges: An Asset to Municipal Leaders
Community colleges are hidden treasures in America’s higher education system. They open doors for city residents to gain postsecondary credentials – associates degrees, certificates and job training – regardless of their life circumstances.
Community colleges welcome the traditional high school graduate who may or may not be the first in their family to go to college, newly arrived immigrants, parents who delayed college to raise a family, returning students who took time off to do military service, and single parents who need additional skills or credentials to earn a livable wage. They are also a hub for many African American and Hispanic students to get a jump start in gaining postsecondary credentials.
Employers also seek out community colleges to address their existing workforce development needs and to keep pace with the changing nature of the work.
Community colleges are flexible. They can build bridges between K-12 and higher education, develop and implement academic and career pathways that cater to workforce needs, and introduce high school students to opportunities such as dual enrollment so they can gain college credits during their final year of high school. Data from the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce and the Economic Policy Institute tell us that the lifetime earning potential of a worker with a four-year or two-year college credential is significantly more than that of a high school graduate or dropout.
The Power of Partnerships Between Mayors and Community Colleges
As community colleges and city hall continue to collaborate at the local level, NLC has been intentional in partnering with three premier organizations representing community colleges — the Biden Foundation, American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and Achieving the Dream (ATD). The Biden Foundation, AACC and ATD have served as advisors and faculty at our Leadership Academy and Mayors’ Institute throughout the duration of this initiative.
NLC’s recent initiative on in which we worked with six cities in partnership with LinkedIn and Policy Link over a two-year period – utilized a multi-sector partnership approach and data to foster equity. We have made great strides in building the capacity of cities to ensure more young people and adults from historically marginalized populations have access to postsecondary and education opportunities that lead to meaningful employment.
Here are a few highlights of what participants were able to achieve:
- Under Mayor John Tecklenburg, Charleston, South Carolina, expanded apprenticeship programs and career academies by partnering with Trident Technical College and the local school district. The goal was to meet the growing demand for skilled labor while offering students a pathway toward a family-sustaining career.
- The city of Austin, Texas, under Mayor Steve Adler, established a target of upskilling 30,000 underemployed and unemployed residents to fill high demand jobs. Austin developed a new data sharing agreement between Austin Community College (ACC) and community-based organizations to provide workforce development training focused on measuring the success of opportunity youth and the adult population. In addition, a partnership with Austin Chamber of Commerce supports a data-sharing agreement between area school districts and the community college as part of a Summer College Transition program for recent high school graduates. The Chamber and community college are also collaborating on an effort to re-enroll thousands of adults with some college and no credential, to scale the city Master Community Workforce Plan and help more underserved and low-income residents compete for area jobs.
- The city of Corpus Christi, Texas, developed its first-ever citywide Education Strategic Plan led by Mayor Joe McComb, Del Mar College and other business and community partners. The goal of the plan is to improve preparation for postsecondary education through the P-16 system, use data to drive decision-making and enhance collaboration among educational institutions, businesses and community-based organizations;
- City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner spearheaded the launch of Hire Houston Youth to increase the number of youth in the workforce. This includes a plan to enroll many of these young people into postsecondary institutions to receive certifications or degrees by 2020. Houston Community College is part of these conversations.
- In Jacksonville, Florida, the FSCJ Promise program at Florida State College at Jacksonville promotes equity among community youth by funding the first two years of higher education for both first-time-in-college students and Pell Grant-eligible students who attend community college. Mayor Lenny Curry has been a driver of this initiative along with his Youth at Work Partnership to provide more job opportunities to youth.
- Nashville State Community College has been an integral part of Nashville and Davidson County Mayor David Briley’s vision to increase African-American postsecondary attainment and focus on the city’s Promise Zone. The launching of the Reconnect Café on the campus of Nashville State Community College allows easy access to college advising and resources for adult students.
When cities and community colleges work together, we all benefit. I am personally indebted to Montgomery College in Maryland for preparing my daughter academically and for giving her confidence at the start of her college career. With that confidence, she has now transferred to a four-year college within the University of Maryland system.
I have always impressed upon her the importance of getting that first associate degree and using it as a stepping stone as she finds her place in the world. My ultimate goal with NLC is to make sure everyone can have this opportunity.
About the Author: Audrey M. Hutchinson, MSc., MPH is the Director of Education and Expanded Learning at the National League of Cities (NLC), Institute for Youth, Education and Families. She leads efforts to build the capacity of local elected officials to be strong advocates for K-12, postsecondary education, workforce development, and after school and summer learning.