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The 1,038 community colleges in the U.S. play an important role for students and communities, providing a quality education that prepares students for jobs or to transfer to four-year colleges and universities. Given that over 40% of undergraduate students in the U.S. are pursuing an Associate’s Degree and the percentage of job openings that require a four-year degree declined from 51% in 2017 to 44% in 2021, the significance of community colleges in shaping the next generation of workers can’t be overstated.
Community colleges support underserved student populations
The 2023 demographic breakdown of community college students from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) shows how these schools provide opportunities for underserved student populations:
Additionally, 30% of community college students are first-generation, 16% are single parents, 9% are non-U.S. citizens, and 5% are veterans. The average age of a community college student is 27, and 35% of students are between the ages of 22 and 39. These stats show that community colleges are a diverse hub for developing and strengthening our economy’s ever-changing workforce, as well as increasing representation in the workforce for those typically underrepresented.
The impact of community colleges on workforce development
Community colleges are critical in preparing individuals and addressing the skills gap for in-demand local jobs, making them key contributors to our workforce. These educational institutions and technical colleges offer affordable and accessible education, which is often tailored to meet the needs of the local job market. This not only prepares students for available job opportunities, but also contributes to the economic growth and development of local communities—especially low-income and underserved populations.
Some key ways that community colleges contribute include:
- Offering degree programs and education programs that lead to certificates and Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS), and Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degrees in fields with high demand for skilled workers, such as healthcare, information technology, and manufacturing. And in states such as California, four-year bachelor’s degree programs at community colleges are expanding for in-demand jobs. Data suggests that nearly 98% of students who complete these degrees find employment in the same field of study as their degree.
- Collaborating with local businesses to create training programs that meet specific industry needs. A study by the Aspen Institute found that partnerships between community colleges and businesses lead to increased program quality, student success, and job placement rates. The study also found that these partnerships help address workforce shortages in high-demand industries.
- Providing career counseling and job placement services to learners to enhance career readiness and employability. In fact, people with some college or an associate’s degree have made up the largest share of the U.S. civilian labor force compared to all other major categories of educational attainment since 2012.
- Partnering with local employers to offer internships, apprenticeships, and other work-based learning experiences that provide students with real-world experience and job training. Findings by Strada Center for Education and Consumer Rights found “paid internships are linked to getting paid more after graduation” and with “greater confidence they will be successful in the job market.”
- Serving as employers, creating job opportunities, and investing in residents’ education, ultimately leading to the economic development of the community. For example, community colleges contribute $809 billion to the U.S. economy each year and create 13 jobs for every $1 million spent. Moreover, community college grads pay $6,200 more in taxes each year than those with only a high school diploma.
With research and statistics like those above, it’s easy to see why community colleges are vital in promoting economic growth and increasing opportunities for American workers. The $500 million Good Jobs Challenge from the EDA is a great example of how strategic partnerships can support workforce development and create opportunities while promoting equity and diversity.
How community colleges create opportunities for underserved populations
Community colleges are particularly important resources for low-income students—58% of community college students have low-income backgrounds compared with 42% of students at private four-year colleges. And, over 70% of Black and Native American community college students and two-thirds of Latinx students are low-income students.
For many of these students, one of the greatest barriers to academic success is a lack of basic needs support. Access to resources such as food, housing, childcare, mental health care, financial assistance, and transportation is critical for ensuring strong academic performance, increasing persistence and graduation rates, and improving health and well-being among community college students.
In response to community college partners’ needs and data that showed 71% of community college students experienced stress due to the lack of basic needs, TimelyCare launched basic needs support. Care coordinators connect students to free and reduced-cost resources through local government agencies, non-profit organizations, and campus programs to help with their needs.
As the cost of college has increased, so have the economic benefits of earning a degree. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that graduates with associate degrees make $2 million in lifetime earnings, compared with $2.8 million for bachelor’s degree holders and $1.6 million for full-time workers with a high school diploma. For this reason, it’s crucial to ensure all people, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, can access and afford higher education and the basic needs to achieve their academic goals.
Take proactive measures to support students' mental health journeys
Challenges that community colleges face
There are various challenges that community colleges face that can impact these institutions’ ability to effectively serve students and communities. Community college leaders must navigate a complex landscape to fulfill their mission of providing accessible and quality education. Consider these four community college challenges.
1. Basic needs insecurities among students
The Center for Community College Student Engagement’s (CCCSE’s) recent study Mission Critical: The Role of Community Colleges in Meeting Students’ Basic Needs found that over one-quarter of community college students, particularly students of color, face basic needs insecurity. While the report also found that those struggling with food and housing were more involved and engaged in their academic studies, this resilience shows that students can often do more with less. However, this doesn’t set students up for long-term success, when nearly a third (29%) reported running out of food and 14% are housing-insecure.
2. Lack of funding for institutional needs
The Federal Government established the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stability Act (CARES) on March 27, 2020. But now that those resources are depleted, additional strain is being placed on community colleges. And, according to the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT), community colleges across the country face tight budgets that are caused in part by states reducing their investments in them and chronic underfunding at the federal level. This fact makes it difficult for community colleges to provide the resources that students need to thrive.
3. Limited resources at rural institutions
There are 1,087 rural-serving institutions (RSIs) in the U.S. which serve communities facing socioeconomic disparities. For some communities, these institutions may be the primary or sole providers of essential resources (e.g., mental health counseling, food banks, Internet access, transportation, etc.). Of the higher education institutions located in low-employment counties, 83% are RSIs. With decreased access to basic needs that may prevent students at RSIs from accessing care, RSIs face many challenges such as inadequate broadband connectivity, lack of public transportation, limited access to affordable childcare, and more.
4. Access to student health and well-being services
Comprehensive support services play a crucial role in the success and retention of community college students. Many students may not have access to physical and mental health care beyond what’s offered by the school, which may come at a cost to the student. Many institutions may lack the necessary resources to provide these services, affecting persistence rates. The CCCSE’s report noted that students of color and low-income students are more likely to face challenges accessing or paying for physical and mental health care. According to a Gallup-Lumina poll, 55% of associate degree students who considered dropping out cited emotional stress as the primary reason. Without access to student support services that address basic needs and mental health, students are at heightened risk of dropping out of college. According to a recent study, over 50% of community college students screened positive for symptoms of one or more mental health conditions, and among these students with symptoms, fewer than 30% used mental health treatment in the past year. The study found that the cost of care is the most significant barrier to treatment for community college students in need.
How community college leaders can respond to institutional challenges
Despite these challenges, community colleges remain resilient and continue to provide essential services to their students and communities. Even so, policymakers and stakeholders must prioritize support for these institutions to ensure they can continue to serve as a pathway to success for students. Community college leaders must look for solutions to overcome challenges.
1. Form partnerships and take appropriate steps to support needs
Both the CCCSE and ACCT recommend that community colleges build stronger partnerships with community organizations to support students’ basic needs. To adequately care for students, community college leaders must also be aware of students’ needs, identify or develop the necessary resources to meet those needs, and actively connect students to services for support. Virtual resources, such as TimelyCare, can provide basic needs assistance to connect students to the resources they need.
2. Identify new sources of funding for student services
With HEERF funding no longer available, it’s essential that community college leaders look to new state and federal funding opportunities for student services. For example, California’s Budget Act of 2021 included $30 million in ongoing local assistance funds to support expanding the availability of mental health services available to California community college students. The combination of this funding allocation and a partnership with The Foundation for California Community Colleges (FCCC) means that one-third of California’s community college students have equitable access to care anytime, anywhere, through TimelyCare.
3. Expand mental health resources
An essential part of any community college’s strategy to prepare students for the workforce must include investing in their health and well-being—it’s good for the student, it’s good for the community college, and it’s good for America’s workforce. However, TimelyCare’s recent survey of college graduates found that, for associate-degree-seeking students, the negative impact on their mental health stemmed primarily from COVID-19-related factors that made them feel less prepared to enter the workforce. To equip academic communities to achieve these ends, virtual care platforms, such as TimelyCare, can partner with community colleges to extend the reach of campus health resources.
Additional resources that support community colleges
Community colleges play a critical role in providing access to higher education, but many students face significant challenges that can impact their mental health and academic success. Fortunately, there are solutions to these challenges. Data-informed approaches, peer support initiatives, and programs that help underserved student populations formulate a sense of belonging can all be effective approaches to address these challenges. Here are a few organizations that can assist:
Achieving the Dream
A national nonprofit helping community colleges improve student outcomes through coaching, technical assistance, and professional development opportunities, with a focus on equity and student-centered reforms. Their resources help community colleges improve the retention, graduation, and transfer rates of their students.
American Association of Community Colleges (AACC)
A national advocacy organization representing nearly 1,200 community colleges. They offer professional development, policy advocacy, research, and other services to help community colleges navigate legislative and policy changes, improve institutional effectiveness, and enhance student success.
A private foundation that partners with community colleges to increase the number of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates, and other credentials. They provide grants, research, and technical assistance to community colleges, prioritizing equity and student-centered approaches in their work. Community colleges can benefit from their resources to improve student outcomes and increase graduates in their communities.
National Council for Workforce Education (NCWE)
A professional organization supporting community colleges in providing workforce education and training programs. They offer resources and professional development opportunities to align programs with local workforce needs and help students acquire the skills and credentials needed for success in the labor market.
Community College Research Center (CCRC)
A research and policy center that conducts research on community colleges and provides guidance on how to improve their outcomes. They offer resources to implement evidence-based reforms, with a focus on topics such as student success, developmental education, and guided pathways.
TimelyCare’s Basic Needs Support service connects students with free or reduced-cost programs that provide support for services like food assistance, transit support, childcare, and in-person health care, helping to bridge the gap community colleges face. Contact TimelyCare to learn how we can provide your campus with complete clinical care, advanced technology, and expert guidance to develop a hybrid model of care designed to keep community college students engaged—and in school.