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  • Writer's pictureRobert Schwartz

CONVENING: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity

This is a momentous time for economic mobility in America. Even prior to the disruption wrought by the COVID-19 crisis, the structure and composition of jobs were changing. The share of good jobs going to workers without postsecondary education have been declining for over three decades. However, work from our faculty co-director Peter Blair has highlighted that over 60% of the 144 million active workers in the United States don’t have a 4-year college degree and are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs).

The CLIMB Initiative, co-led by our faculty co-director David Deming, and utilizing multi-generational tax data from the IRS, finds that community colleges are responsible for the largest share of upward mobility success stories in American higher education. In addition, research has shown that community colleges are the postsecondary institutions most likely to mirror America’s growing diversity across race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. When led well and resourced appropriately, community colleges are well-placed to both serve a broad subset of workers and learners, and also, to work closely with employers to create targeted training programs that respond to local needs. As more US regions confront technological change, increasing international trade, and growing inequality, community colleges must be at the center of the mission to create more pathways into quality employment.

Given this context, the Project on Workforce set out in Fall 2021 to find five community colleges in different regions of the country that are exemplary on two related dimensions: they prioritize career advancement for all learners across all programs, credit and non-credit alike; and through their close partnerships with regional employers and programmatic alignment with regional labor market needs, they have positioned themselves to be key players in their region’s workforce and economic development ecosystem. Identified through a mix of qualitative and quantitative variables, these case study institutions exemplify the strategies and enabling factors necessary for community colleges to become engines of broadly-shared economic growth in their communities.

  • Lorain County Community College (OH)

  • Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MS)

  • Northern Virginia Community College (VA)

  • Pima Community College (AZ)

  • San Jacinto Community College (TX)

On June 28, 2022, the Project on Workforce, in collaboration with Jobs for the Future, hosted a virtual convening that brought together college leadership from these five partner institutions with cross-sector leadership teams from six states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey—that are seeking to expand the role of their community colleges in economic development and shared prosperity.

As part of the convening, we hosted a panel discussion that featured the presidents and chancellors from the five institutions. The panel discussion explored a range of topics including how to break down the silos been credit and non-credit offerings, build deep, sustained relationships with employers, and reaching new learners and workers in the economy. You can watch the full panel conversation in the recording, above.

All five case studies will be published by Harvard Education Press in a volume edited by HPoW Director Rachel Lipson and Senior Advisor Bob Schwartz, “America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity”, expected to be released in Spring 2023.

Panel Speakers

  • Marcia Ballinger, President, Lorain County Community College

  • Brenda Hellyer, Chancellor, San Jacinto Community College

  • Lee Lambert, Chancellor and CEO, Pima Community College

  • Anne Kress, President, Northern Virginia Community College

  • Jonathan Woodward, Executive Vice-President, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

Panel Moderator

  • Bob Schwartz, Senior Advisor, Project on Workforce

Videos featuring two of the community colleges can be found below.


Lorain County Community College

Lorain County Community College has a long-established reputation as the community’s college. Folks across Northeast Ohio look to Lorain to earn college credits while they are in high school, complete a valuable credential before transferring to a four-year institution, and upskill after decades in the workforce. Learn more about what makes Lorain stand out in the video below.


Pima Community College

Over the past decade, Pima has undergone a dramatic transformation to better serve its learners, community, and employers. At the center of Pima’s strategy is a priority on providing working learners the flexibility they need to succeed. Pima has promoted the development of multiple, flexible pathways across the full spectrum of education and training, ranging from career-focused high school and adult basic education programs, micro-pathways, certificates, and degrees. On top of these efforts, Pima prioritizes being industry-facing and employer-friendly. Learn more about what makes Pima special in the video below.


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