Op-Ed: How Community Colleges Can Rebuild America’s Middle Class

As countless traditional institutions are “disrupted,” from taxi commissions to companies like IBM, we are also witnessing an unbundling of our education and labor system. In the process, new strategies need to be deployed to solve long-term issues.

There are no more vexing issues to be solved than youth unemployment, particularly in America’s largest cities and the lack of training for adults who don’t have the skills to compete in today’s workforce. And to the extent that great moments can be born from great challenges, today’s community colleges are taking the lead to rebuild America’s middle class.

Indeed, many community colleges across America have been at the forefront of this transformation of the delivery education  reflecting the emerging needs of students.  These community colleges are working with employers in building the workforce for today’s new skills economy.

Why is are these efforts by community colleges so important today, the middle-skills gap is only getting worse.  Employers are at least 5 million people short in terms of workers today who have at least some post-secondary education. Yet alarmingly, the unemployment rate among disadvantaged youth ages 18-24 is in excess of 15%, and as high as 30% in some cities. Additionally, adults over 25 who have a high school diploma or less have unemployment rates that are more than double those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

On the bright side, there is a greater awareness of the societal consequences of disaffected youth not getting on a better path and how our economy is leaving behind adults without the skills and training to obtain employment.  This not only hurts our nation’s ability to compete economically, but it also harms communities and families.

All of these forces are coalescing to make this a potential defining moment for community colleges. With thoughtful leadership and smart, long-term strategies, community colleges can take advantage of our strengths, starting with our people. Not only do community colleges possess dedicated staffs with deep expertise in serving those who are looking to advance their educations, we have an alumni base that dwarfs any leading college or group of colleges.

Thanks to our rich history of deep local ties, community colleges have built a portfolio of countless local partnerships with employers and 4-year colleges across the country and, in the process, immeasurable goodwill.

Now more than ever, community colleges are leveraging these advantages. After all, we are at the epicenter of a resurgent movement to empower second-chance learners with confident and creditable pathways to career and economic mobility. We consistently deliver tangible outcomes and help level the playing field of opportunity and income inequality.

We must face facts. The vast majority of jobs in the future will require more than a high school degree – and the growth of the number of students graduating college is tapering off – but the relationship between some type of post-secondary credential, such as an associate degree, and income has never been more pronounced.

Skills are becoming a new type of currency. They will be measured in a more exacting way than ever before as employers are getting highly analytical in measuring a candidate’s credentials. Those who have the right skills and competencies will do better than those without. These greater demands being pushed on candidates by employers, powered by more sophisticated use of analytical solutions, will require candidates to up their game.

Community colleges are perfectly positioned to enable next generation skills-hubs focused on academic achievement and career relevance. These efforts can and should be in lock-step with national and local public and private sector partners clustered around our thousands of campuses around the country. At the federal- and state-level, support for community colleges must be strengthened to allow Pell grants to be used throughout the year and giving States more resources to support associate degree students.  Community colleges need more support from all levels to remain the low cost and high impact option that our students need to join the middle class.

Community colleges writ large possess a one-of-kind portfolio of assets and capabilities that are impossible to replicate. Our powerful mix of ingenuity, efficiency and effectiveness can mitigate the major financial, motivational, and academic risks students face and, in the process, we can rebuild America’s middle class.