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Community Colleges Offer Key Partnerships for Expanding Economic Opportunity

With support from The Rockefeller Foundation and in partnership with the National Association of Counties, the Bipartisan Policy Center has spent months conducting interviews and roundtables across the country with local leaders who are developing innovative solutions to improve economic security in their communities. This blog is the third in a series highlighting those innovations, focusing on pioneering programs that attempt to increase the number of economic opportunities available to individuals and families in America.

Community colleges enroll four in ten American undergraduate students, and one-quarter of full-time undergraduates. They have come to be seen as integral to addressing some of the most persistent U.S. economic challenges, including retraining workers and helping rebuild the bridge to middle-class jobs in many areas. Rebecca Corbin, president and CEO of the National Association of Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE), sums up this essential role:

Community colleges are open access institutions with a mission of serving communities while educating students. Their focus on technical education and workforce development makes them the ideal partner for industry, government, and philanthropic entities dedicated to economic opportunity and prosperity for low and middle-income people.

Community colleges were frequently cited in BPC’s interviews and roundtables as key players in expanding access to economic opportunity. For too many Americans, economic opportunity is either out of reach or nonexistent: we found several community colleges at the forefront of closing these gaps.

In West Virginia, for example, operating out of a single building, Eastern West Virginia Technical & Community College (“Eastern”) is seeking to reinvigorate the economies of six rural counties by tapping into latent entrepreneurial potential. Earlier this year, West Virginia became one of the latest states to introduce legislation making community college free, albeit with conditions. For the past few years, Eastern has been helping existing and emerging entrepreneurs in the region through training and connecting them to resources that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. The school focuses on entrepreneurial opportunity in sectors important to the regional economy, such as agriculture and tourism.

The officials we spoke to at Eastern said they are trying to help foster an entrepreneurial mindset among the school’s students and community members at large. This began with a shift in focus at the school itself. Traditionally, community colleges train students for jobs that already exist. But what happens when jobs disappear? Eastern’s president, Charles Terrell, looked at this situation and said, “why aren’t we engaged in creating the businesses that create the jobs that we’re training people for?”

This effort, which is assisted nationally by NACCE, varies by geographic context. Tarrant County College (TCC) in Texas, one of the nation’s largest community colleges, is trying to tailor its course offerings to meet the needs of entrepreneurs and the community. As with Terrell and Eastern, this endeavor was initiated by an incisive observation from the school’s Chancellor, Eugene Giovannini: “Entrepreneurship is homegrown, it comes from the community. Who’s more connected to the community than community colleges?”

Beyond entrepreneurship, community colleges are leading the way with other innovative programs. At Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) in Maryland, for example, a new dual enrollment program—called “middle college”—seeks to accelerate the pathway for high school students to postsecondary education and help them prepare for different careers.TCC’s model pays particular attention to the other financial barriers that students face by offering to help pay transportation costs and moving toward providing on-site child care. Reducing these sorts of barriers can serve as an example for other programs across the country of how to make it easier for families to access economic opportunities.

While dual enrollment itself is not new, PGCC middle college is offered at no cost. The focus is specifically on students from low socioeconomic backgrounds or who are first-generation in college. So far, PGCC boasts a strong track record in terms of middle college participants gaining acceptance into four-year institutions. Students receive both a high school diploma and associate’s degree if they complete all four years of middle college, putting them in a strong position for future success. Other middle college programs have since begun around Maryland, and PGCC itself has expanded the middle college curricular offerings.

Community colleges can’t expand economic opportunity on their own, but the United States will not likely make much progress on inequality and mobility without the key role played by these schools.

Community colleges can’t expand economic opportunity on their own, but the United States will not likely make much progress on inequality and mobility without the key role played by these schools. Their model of breaking down the barriers their students face in accessing opportunity and leveraging the unique assets of their communities are key lessons for policymakers looking at reforms for the workforce and education systems in our rapidly evolving economy.

*This blog has been corrected to reflect that the West Virginia legislation was introduced in the state legislature, but not passed into law.  
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