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Community Colleges: A Public Good

Community Colleges: A Public Good

MEMPHIS, Tenn., March 29, 2024 /PRNewswire/ — 

The following is written by Dr. Tracy D. Hall, President of Southwest Tennessee Community College:

The Chronicle of Higher Education released in July 2023 a publication entitled “College as a Public Good: Making the case through community engagement.” In it were sections devoted to topics such as colleges as stewards of the public trust, educational partners, financial drivers and community partners. 

Community colleges serve all of these purposes and more. We take the community in our middle name seriously. Since our beginning in the 1900s, junior colleges (now community colleges) have partnered with local businesses and industries, K-12, civic, social, and government partners to meet the needs of our communities. 

Take Southwest Tennessee Community College, for example, where I have served as president for nearly nine years. Located in Memphis, Tenn., home of the blues and barbeque, this predominantly Black institution has a front-row seat to the abject poverty that has plagued the city for generations. In 2021, poverty in this majority Black city stood at 22%, higher than the state of Tennessee (13.6%) and the United States (12.8%).

The ravages of poverty were especially evident during the global pandemic. Southwest’s enrollment dipped 30%, Tennessee’s largest decline in community college enrollment. We faced a budget deficit of $10.6 million

Before the pandemic, our students were already struggling to make ends meet. Fifty percent qualified for federal Pell Grant funding. Our fall enrollees’ average family contribution (EFC) was $670. The EFC represents the maximum financial support a student’s household can likely devote to tuition, fees, and books in a year. 

There were few, if any, safety nets for our students. In fact, most walked a tightrope trying to balance school, family, transportation challenges, lack of childcare, and even homelessness. Unfortunately for many, life too often got in the way of their dreams. 

And then came a pandemic — the epitome of adding insult to injury.

Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the social and economic welfare of communities across our nation. But, for those individuals and communities already in peril, the results were even more devastating. Data indicate that a post-secondary credential significantly increases lifetime earning potential. Again, our enrollment declined 30%. If these students did not return to their studies, their job prospects would likely continue to recede, resulting in less earning potential and fewer opportunities than their credentialed counterparts. These factors are why, despite our post-pandemic dip in enrollment and resulting budget shortfall, Southwest made the big, audacious move to, once again, redesign, reset and reinvent the college to answer the call of the community.

Southwest Workforce Solutions Center
The students were not the only Covid victims. Local business leaders needed help finding employees. Concerns grew about the local economy’s future, and talks ensued about ways to help Memphis quickly recover from the pandemic. Business leaders expressed a need to deliver shorter-term, career-focused programs at an accelerated speed. 

For more than two decades, Southwest has met the needs of the local community, whether it was developing the state’s first community college aviation program to address the impending shortage of pilots or partnering with the police department and the City of Memphis to develop a police services technician program to address the shortage of police officers, Southwest has answered the call. 

A pandemic, then, would not deter us from our mission to move with all deliberate speed to respond to the needs of our business community. 

Thanks to an $800,000 grant from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, we began rebranding our entire college into Southwest: The Workforce Solutions Center (SWSC). We increased our customized training to address unique industry needs, including soft skills and leadership skills training and training in automotive, business, engineering, IT, logistics, transportation management, robotics, and health care programs. 

We focused on a holistic analysis of students, using data-driven training plans to enhance student success and completion. We offered pre-career training and an industry preview for potential students to ensure they pursued careers that best met their interests and skill set. 

Perhaps most importantly, we accelerated our programs by incorporating industry-identified training programs leading to credentialing that is scalable to evolving business needs (certifications, licensure, and/or degrees). 

Buoyed by a $5500,000 Reimagining the Community College Experience grant from the Tennessee Board of Regents, our workforce and academic units collaborated to create seamless, non-credit-to-credit stackable credentials. Students can now earn a career and technical certificate in their first year at the college.

We also incorporated auto-credentialing to capture students who had completed coursework but had yet to take the steps to apply for graduation. Southwest is just one of many examples of community colleges nationwide that are doing the heavy lifting to respond to the needs of our communities. 

Engagement extends beyond the classroom for the more than 1,000 community colleges nationwide. Our very essence promotes a culture of collaboration and inclusivity that enriches the college experience for our students and contributes to the overall social fabric of the communities we serve. 

For most community colleges, our graduates remain in the local community. According to our most recent economic impact study at Southwest, 96% of our alums remain in the Memphis metropolitan area. Operations spending from the college and our students and alums generated over $126 million in income to the Mid-South economy, equivalent to 2,457 jobs.

We not only help to develop the workforce, but community colleges are also employers. At Southwest, our economic study showed that we spent over $41 million on payroll and benefits for 1,126 full-time and part-time employees and nearly $40 million on goods and services to carry out our day-to-day operations. 

The results of this study show that Southwest creates a positive net impact on the regional economy and generates a positive return on investment for students, taxpayers, and society.

Community colleges contribute significantly to our local, regional, and state economies. We keep our fingers on the pulse and ears to the ground to ensure that we are meeting the needs of our communities. By being visible and active participants in social endeavors, community colleges strengthen ties with the community and play a vital role in nurturing a collective ethos of progress, compassion, and shared success. 

By heeding the call from our communities, community colleges create positive environments that reinforce the notion that education is not isolated from the real world but an integral part of the larger society. Community colleges embrace our roles as stewards of the public trust, educational partners, financial drivers, and community partners. 

We are, indeed, a public good.

About Southwest
Southwest Tennessee Community College is a comprehensive, multicultural, public, open-access college with seven locations in West Tennessee. Southwest awards associate degrees and certificates in more than 120 programs of study. Southwest, a Tennessee Board of Regents institution, is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

About AACC
Uniquely American, community colleges serve more than 10 million students annually, providing critical access to higher education in academic and workforce development. As the voice of the nation’s community colleges, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), delivers educational and economic opportunity for more than 10 million diverse students in search of the American Dream. Uniquely dedicated to access and success for all students, AACC’s member colleges provide an on-ramp to degree attainment, skilled careers, and family-supporting wages. Located in Washington, D.C., AACC advocates for these not-for-profit, public-serving institutions to ensure they have the resources and support to increase economic mobility for all. https://www.aacc.nche.edu/

SOURCE American Association of Community Colleges

Originally published at https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/community-colleges-a-public-good-302103580.html
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