By Jennifer Zeisler, Senior Program Director, ECMC Foundation

This post was originally posted on the ECMC Foundation website. Jennifer Zeisler is a Steering Committee member of Workforce Matters.

National Community College Research Alliance Convening, Raleigh, North Carolina

ECMC Foundation ― with its mission to improve higher education for career success among underserved populations through evidence-based innovation ― has demonstrated a strong commitment to community colleges since our inception, and these important institutions ― and the students they serve ― remain a key priority. This is why earlier this year, I jumped at the opportunity to attend several events highlighting the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing community college administrators, faculty and students. Community College Month provides a chance to reflect on these events and share key takeaways.

Achieving the Dream’s DREAM 2023, Chicago, Illinois 

This event connected student-centered practitioners exploring college transformation as a catalyst for equity and economic vitality. Over 2,200 attendees exchanged evidence-based strategies that drive access, momentum, mobility and community impact. There were a number of prominent sessions and workshops on increasing economic and social mobility, with an emphasis on transforming whole communities through these supports. As changing policies across the country influence how equity concerns are addressed, being able to discuss these barriers in real time with respected peers was valuable.

National Community College Research Alliance Convening, Raleigh, North Carolina

This summit brought together approximately 30 community college-focused researchers with the goal of fostering increased capacity, communication and collaboration. The programming was intentionally focused on addressing challenges and opportunities in parallel, understanding that a vision for change cannot be communicated without a realistic view of the higher education landscape. Another core message was the importance of trust and transparency as researchers in the field share insights (at times delivering difficult news) with leaders (who must understand the urgency) to guide decision-making. Facilitated conversations and panels, including one in which I was honored to participate, addressed relevant topics like sustainability, thought partnership, insights management and research and impact, through an equity lens.

Workforce Matters Community College Working Group, Virtual

This relatively new working group gathered nearly a dozen funders from across the country with the overall goals of increasing the capacity of community colleges to support more equitable outcomes. Some of the key priority areas include but are not limited to strengthening community college partnerships with K-12 systems, community-based organizations and employers; ensuring basic needs support for community college learners; supporting community colleges in developing high impact funding models and understanding strategic finance practices; directing investment in community college leadership and innovation; and honing in on critical populations. I brought attention to the importance of prioritizing data collection and ensuring credit mobility and uplifted ECMC Foundation’s Basic Needs Initiative and Single Mother Student Success Initiative. The Working Group will meet on an ongoing basis to share resources, learn from each other’s investments, and provide updates on grant-funded efforts to continue learning.

Across the three events, sector leaders revisited ongoing challenges amid signs of progress in equity-centered student success work; noted declining enrollments as a key area of concern, especially for BIPOC learners; and uplifted basic needs and post-completion success as key throughlines to systemic change. From my conversations with colleagues in the field, it is clear these institutions are recognized for the critical role they play at the intersection of secondary education, workforce development, government agencies, social services and employers, simultaneously meeting the needs of their students and the communities in which they are located. Yet the reality is that if changes to resources, practices and policies are not made to prioritize student persistence and completion at the community college level, fewer and fewer students will earn the credentials needed to transfer to a four-year program or secure relevant middle-skill jobs ― positions which account for more than half of the jobs in the United States.

There is a palpable movement led by higher education changemakers who are deeply invested in student success. Our time together is a concrete example of how we identify equity issues, work through evidence-based solutions and partner to create systemic change. More than ever, ideation, collaboration and information sharing matter as we aim to meet the ongoing and unmet needs of students enrolled in community college programs. We must not let students face these challenges alone. All students deserve to focus on their learning journey without experiencing disruptions or making tough decisions about whether to stay the course or leave without a credential. We must lower the bar on the amount of sacrifice today’s college students are expected to make.