College completion matters, especially from the perspective of equity. Who finishes, how long it takes them, how much they benefit economically and how their citizenship benefits local communities all matter. This is especially true of knowledge-driven, innovation economies in New England.
For Massachusetts—a state that ranks third highest in the nation for cost of living—a local educated workforce is critical. A tight labor market exists for a competitively skilled workforce across vocational/technical and professional positions. The future of work in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is disruptive and paying attention to it is a strategic imperative for Massachusetts.
Recently, the Massachusetts Department and Board of Higher Education made “equity” a priority for the public higher education sector. This is potentially a game-changer. Over the past three decades, the racial wealth divide in the U.S. has grown significantly. Black and Latino families are more likely to have zero to negative wealth. A 2015 report of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston showed that the trends in wealth disparities hold true in Massachusetts.
Community colleges in Massachusetts enroll more than 45% of students matriculating at public higher education institutions. As income and wealth disparity grow in our state and as we become increasingly diverse, a focus on equity of access and outcomes, like college completion, becomes imperative for the continued economic vitality of the state. More than 80% of community college graduates remain in Massachusetts. Investing in completion for community college students is a very safe bet.
Managing completion expectations
A focus on college completion is essential for our state. However, the public discourse on completion rates at community colleges generally reveals a very superficial understanding of community college students and the resources available to colleges to address the impediments to student success. For starters, 65% of students who enroll at community colleges in Massachusetts are not ready to undertake college-level work. Getting them ready for college-level work as they matriculate part-time and manage the complexity of their lives means added time to completion. The barriers to college completion are not rooted in problems that can be solved with simple performance and accountability—although both are needed.
Community colleges have the most comprehensive mission in the higher education sector. Our students come with the most complex assets and deficits. We serve the most academically gifted and the least prepared. We are “open access.” Students come directly from high school and come as adults who never enrolled or finished their postsecondary education. They may take a few courses to help them build the confidence to matriculate in bachelor’s degree programs and transfer without graduating. In rural communities, we know that community colleges are even more crucial for the local economic vitality. In a longitudinal study of more than 2,000 rural communities in 44 states, Washington State University scholars Andrew Crookston and Gregory Hooks found that job growth rates were significantly greater in rural areas with a community college versus those without one.
To understand the challenges related to completion at community colleges, one needs to fully grasp the profile of students attending these open-access institutions. A 2018 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce showed that low-income students, who predominantly attend community colleges, struggle to balance work, secure food and housing for themselves and their families, attain good grades and ultimately graduate. Many also struggle to find reliable child care.
Implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Change is here. More than prior periods of technological advance, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is marked by its rapid and unparalleled change. Significant advancements in technology are leading to unprecedented displacements of workers, especially in the lowest-skilled and lowest-paid jobs. Technology, knowledge, talent and industries are converging in ways that demand that our academic and workforce programs be more interdisciplinary and more integrated. Nanotechnology, genetic engineering, biocomputers, media, 3D printing and other technologies have radically changed information technology, telecommunications, agriculture, healthcare, manufacturing and so many other industries.
We need new approaches to workforce development—a change in paradigm for the mid-21st century and beyond. Moreover, Massachusetts should equitably manage its growth in ways that relieve congestion in parts of the state and intentionally address population declines in areas that also happen to have lower cost of living.
Where do we go from here?
If we wish to achieve a Massachusetts where residents have more disposable income, can afford to live in the state—and where we are preparing students for jobs that are being created but don’t yet exist—we must make significantly increasing community college completion rates a statewide priority. Below are some considerations for state policymakers:
1. Coordinate statewide investment in high-impact practices that lead to completion across the board, not as competitive annual contests where funding is not guaranteed.
2. Give community colleges the autonomy to decide how best to invest funding for high-impact and innovative practices. This also assumes that funding is adequate enough and is sustained over multiple years.
3. Understand that rural areas have more socioeconomic diversity than racial diversity. Formulas that emphasize population density and define diversity only in terms of race and ethnicity limit higher education opportunities for the rural poor.
4. Expand early college high school in ways that benefit both K-12 school districts and community colleges (especially in rural areas).
5. Develop a statewide assessment of preparedness for jobs of the future, identify key industries for regional investments, and align funding and accountability with workforce and equity goals identified through this process.
Yves Salomon-Fernandez is president of Greenfield Community College located in the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts. She sits on the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Community Development Advisory Council. Her Twitter handle is @PrezYves.