The Top Challenges Facing Community Colleges

Published on Aug 10, 2017

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

The Top Challenges Facing Community Colleges

Seventeen years ago, Emsi was born (CCbenefits, at the time) to study the economic contribution of community colleges on their students and stakeholders (taxpayers, businesses, etc.). The genesis of this work, which has become the Economic Impact Study, was ACCT and its president and CEO, Dr. Noah Brown. There was, and is, an acute need for community colleges to be able to tell their story in terms of dollars and cents and the return on investment they offered. So, many thanks to ACCT and Dr. Brown for what they helped start!

Emsi has stayed committed to community colleges. Now our work has expanded to include the following:

We’ve greatly enjoyed the work and are eager for more of it.

In this month’s Trustee Quarterly, Dr. Brown lays out the primary challenges facing America’s community colleges. We thought this was very helpful. Here we’ll summarize a handful of Dr. Brown’s points and discuss how data can help colleges be more strategic on these critical issues.

1. Employment and Earnings

First, let’s touch on something near and dear to our hearts: How can community colleges proactively address employment outcomes for the sake of students, parents, and stakeholders who want to know the value of the school’s education?

With student debt at an all-time high, everyone is concerned about whether the money (and time) spent on education translates to improved outcomes. Naturally, the concept of alumni tracking and articulating the labor market outcomes of specific institutions and programs has become a dominant theme in the community college sector of late. We applaud the work of groups like the Aspen Institute and Achieving the Dream for the work they have done to raise this issue up the flagpole. Our goal is to come alongside such efforts, using our data to help colleges tie the knowledge and skills they provide to better career trajectories for students.

This, indeed, is why Emsi exists. We appreciate Dr. Brown’s comment: “Through this work, Emsi [is] helping colleges to better align their offerings, including certificates and degrees, to their local labor markets and employer needs. With the benefit of these insights, our institutions will become better equipped to improve employment and earnings throughout that nation.”

For years Emsi has been building data and services that make program alignment more data-driven. We’ve also brought this data to students so they can understand careers, what they pay, the education they require, and the like. The biggest new work we’ve embarked on relates to the use of résumés to track alumni in the labor market so we can see the types of jobs they get and whether these jobs relate to their college education and training. Read more about this new data. You can also attend our free webinar on August 24th. So far, the results of the résumé data have been fantastic (see a recent case study on Montgomery College) and we’d love to help more colleges gain this insight.

2. College Completion, Student Success, and Degrees of Relevance

This aligns with the previous point. Completion and success go hand in hand with labor market outcomes. According to AACC, only 20 percent of degree-seeking students complete their goal. That’s not great. The good news, however, is that many colleges are out there, using data to boost completion rates and promote student success. The points made in the previous section also apply here:

  • Step 1 – Colleges must build programs that have market value. Most students in the community college system are there to improve their job prospects. So it is vital that colleges provide them with real-world, in-demand knowledge and skills. This is a big challenge because it means that community colleges need to keep up with the constantly changing industry world. Faculty and administration designing the programs and curriculum must be familiar with the latest intel from job postings, résumés, surveys, advisory boards, and other sources to ensure programs address marketing skills. Now, of course, the primary role of any educational institution is not job-training, but creating well-rounded individuals. Just think of the skills piece as the icing on the cake — faculty can use the data to help make sure they are aware of the more marketable skills that are in-demand. This can help them make little tweaks and improvements to curriculum and they can use to help students be aware of what the market is looking for these days.

  • Step 2 – Colleges must communicate. One of the top reasons that students drop out of colleges is that they just don’t find themselves getting traction with their studies. What am I actually going to do with this? How am I going to make money? They must believe that what they are learning will help them down the road. We see many colleges using data to help students understand the connection between what is being taught in the classroom and attractive careers. This is just pure information-sharing that gives students a vision for the future and turns college into a doorway rather than a black box.

  • Step 3- Colleges must track outcomes. As colleges build programs that matter and help students enter the labor market, they must also consider what is working and what is not. A great way to do this is by studying what happens to students after they graduate. Do they leave the area? Do they find themselves unemployed? Do they get jobs related to what they studied? Do they own the skills that employers need most? Did they learn these skills at school or on the job? These are all questions that our new data can help answer. We are excited to open this new perspective!

3. Political Landscape

As leadership changes in the White House and Congress, so does the support for the community college system. Colleges must stay on their toes and tell their story to each new administration that passes through Washington D.C. In this post-recession, cost-conscience era, politicians, eager to show that they support things that make sense for taxpayers, want to know if the community college system is actually worth it.

A good way to deal with this is by discussing the economic contribution of the community college system on alumni and the local economy, which brings us back to our introduction and our work through Economic Impact Studies. Today, we conduct some 100-150 studies annually to help colleges and universities articulate their ROI. Each year we see colleges take this message to local, state, and even national governments to articulate the role of the system on the economy.

4. Financial Constraints & Business Models

According to Dr. Brown, “[Community] colleges have seen a 20-year decline in state support,” which makes it harder for them to operate. Community colleges look a lot different now than when they started. The critical point here is that in an effort to create institutional sustainability, “the focus is shifting to public/private partnerships and supplanting traditional income streams.”

Pretty much every college we work with is deep into new funding strategies. Lately, we’ve been able to contribute in this area by helping colleges identify the employers that hire a lot of their students. In some cases, the college were completely in the dark concerning their alumni’s outcomes. With Emsi’s new data, colleges realize there are a lot more businesses they should be talking to about hiring their students. They’re also conducting more conversations about how the business community (and specific employers) can support the college–so that it can continue to generate new talent in the very tight labor market.

5. Declining Enrollment

No doubt about it: Community colleges are in a tough climate when it comes to enrollment. It’s a well known fact that when the economy improves, enrollment in the postsecondary system declines. According to Dr. Brown, “Public community college enrollment declined 9.6 percent over the past three years, from 6.3 million students in 2013 to 5.7 million in 2016.” Nationally, the high school /college age populations are also slightly down. Plus, more and more four-year providers and online institutions are seeking the same students that the community colleges traditional serve.

What can a college college do? How can data help?

  • First, it is key to look closely at how the local demographics are morphing. Many colleges assume they will get a percentage of the students from the local high schools, but this is changing now that more options (such as online degrees) are popping up. This has all changed and now colleges must work hard to understand where students are going to come from and the best way to help them. Labor market data can help here, because it will reveal a lot about the current population and where the college can and shuold focus.

  • Second, colleges will have to work harder to find and retain students. The cost of attrition is high. We’ve found that colleges can use labor market and employment data to engage students, helping them lock in on the right program and stick to it with a career.

6. Leadership

Dr. Brown’s final point is especially important. Data is just a good ingredient to help change institutional, student, political, and business behavior. The foundational need, however, is for good leaders. Every solid best practice, conference talk, and case study we’ve ever seen has been more about the fearless leader who got in there and made something cool happen. The data is a tool. The tool doesn’t do the work. People do.

With this in mind, Emsi has gotten heavily involved with training and leadership development. Over the past few years, we’ve certified hundreds of people with our data so that they can use it more effectively. Once again, we’d also like to highlight the fantastic work accomplished by groups like Aspen’s College Excellence Program and Achieving the Dream, ever striving to produce the community college leaders of tomorrow.

More to come on these topics! Please let us know if you have thoughts or questions. Contact me at