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5 Things Policymakers Need to Know About Today’s Students

September 14, 2022

At a Glance

State and federal officials need to consider community college students’ new priorities as they craft policies to transform higher education.

Marcia Ballinger President, Lorain County Community College
Michael Baston President, Cuyahoga Community College
Practices & Centers

As we welcome students back to class this fall, we can’t help but be reminded of the many ways in which their expectations for what a community college education can and should deliver are evolving. And we believe state and federal officials need to be aware of the changes in students’ outlooks so they can craft public policies to transform higher education in ways that meet the needs of all stakeholders—students, parents, employers, and everyone else across the country.

Now more than ever, students and their families are questioning the value of college. Among the most skeptical are members of Generation Z—those born in the 1990s and early 2000s. They’re not confident that the typical pathway from high school to a four-year degree will lead to career success and economic advancement. Coming of age during the pandemic and a period of major technological disruptions and advances, young people today have interests and needs that don’t fit neatly within a full-time four-year model, especially when it comes to the types of skills they’d like to learn. This is also the case among the expanding population of students who are parents, working adults, veterans, online learners, and first-generation and part-time college attendees.

Yet, public policy in the United States is still geared toward so-called “traditional” students and their traditional on-campus college experiences. Federal and state policy must adapt to new realities and set aside these outmoded assumptions in order to meet today’s students where they are.

As a starting point, they should adopt a reform agenda that’s based on an unwavering commitment to expanding access to opportunity for all, and they should take into account the strengths, priorities, and circumstances of prospective students.

Federal and state policy must adapt to new realities and set aside these outmoded assumptions in order to meet today’s students where they are.

To get this discussion started and identify the issues new policies should address, Jobs for the Future (JFF) recently convened the Policy Leadership Trust (PLT)—a select group of community college leaders from across the nation—to identify common emerging trends among community college student populations. The two of us serve as co-chairs of the Trust.

Sharing our insights, we put together a list of five things today’s students want and need most, and we encourage policymakers to keep this list in mind if they hope to develop a blueprint for transforming higher education. Here’s the PLT’s list of the key things students are looking for:

  1. Clear returns on their investments of time and money
  2. Equitable access to high-quality alternative credentialing opportunities
  3. Conditions that make it possible to engage in entrepreneurial pursuits
  4. A system that helps them overcome social and economic barriers to educations
  5. A strong sense of belonging

In the discussions that led us to these insights, we took into account the fact that many students whose studies were interrupted by the pandemic may have lost skills that enabled them to access education and persist in their courses of study. And, at the same time, many students have new priorities and they’re expressing a desire to focus on building specific skills and gaining valuable experience through which they can, for example, develop entrepreneurial expertise and attain certifications of job readiness on accelerated timelines—and retain more agency over their day-to-day life activities.

We also noted that enrollment patterns reveal that students now prefer flexibility in the way they engage in their educations and access training and instructional materials. On many of our campuses, students are choosing online classes or opting for hybrid programs with a combination of online and in-person instruction.

As college leaders, we believe that our role is to help all students become agile, resilient thinkers in whatever manner suits them best. And we call on state and federal officials to adopt new policies to help make that vision a reality.

Here are more in-depth discussions of the ways in which public policy can help provide students with each of the five conditions and supports they want and need most.

Clear Returns on Their Investments

Recognizing that time is money, many current and prospective students—especially those who face the greatest barriers to accessing education—are forgoing educational pathways and choosing to earn rather than learn, drawn to the labor market by increased wages and ample job opportunities.

Yet, these work experiences won’t necessarily prepare them for long-term economic advancement. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is facing a looming shortage of workers with the skills needed for midtier jobs in critical industry sectors—a shortage that will only grow larger as baby boomers continue to retire in substantial numbers.

To re-engage students, policymakers must develop and strengthen legislation that expands access to high-quality, paid work-based learning experiences—bringing employers to the classroom and students to the workplace—to ensure there are ample opportunities to earn while you learn. Most of all, we must expand access to short-term training programs that allow learners to acquire new in-demand skills quickly so they can stay on successful career pathways.

College affordability is another factor students consider when calculating the returns on their investments in education. State and federal officials must ensure that policies governing financial aid, tuition costs, and the continuity of learning are designed to facilitate, not impede, an individual’s ability to enroll in college and complete a postsecondary credential. But they must recognize that a promise to a college education—in the form of free or affordable tuition—alone is not enough.

Equitable Access to High-Quality Alternative Credentialing Opportunities

While enrollments in traditional degree programs continue to decline at many community colleges, an increasing number of students are choosing to pursue other types of skill-building opportunities, yielding rapid increases in enrollment in short-term certificate programs and other noncredit coursework tied to careers in sectors like IT, health care, and manufacturing.

Many students are gravitating to short-term programs because they provide flexible scheduling options, lower costs, direct alignment to labor market demands, connections to employers, and—perhaps most important—opportunities to get to work quicker than they would if they had to complete a longer degree program.

Employers, meanwhile, are beginning to realize that the lack of a degree doesn’t mean a lack of the skills or ambition. In a study commissioned by American Student Assistance and JFF, 68 percent of employers said they have a desire to hire students with industry-recognized certifications and other short-term workforce credentials.

This confluence of student and employer interests suggests that there’s a need for an increase in funding and support for shorter-term postsecondary education and training programs. Participants in short-term workforce-oriented courses are students, too, and should be treated as such. They should have opportunities to receive credit for skills and expertise they acquire in these programs, and on the job and elsewhere. And state and federal policy should ensure that short-term credentialing programs are affordable and meet certain standards of quality.

Rather than relying on what worked in the past, it’s necessary to look at what motivates individuals now and shift practices accordingly. Doing so will invite students who stopped out of college to return and earn credentials that have value in the labor market.

Conditions That Make It Possible to Engage in Entrepreneurial Pursuits

For many young people—especially those who are among newer generations of college students—the economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic increased value of career autonomy, independence, and flexibility. With students and others facing an accelerated need to take control of their livelihoods, people started online microbusinesses at a record pace, and the number of unincorporated, self-employed Americans reached 9.44 million in October 2021.

The nation needs postsecondary education policies that are aligned with this entrepreneurial mindset and drive institutions and systems to focus on helping students realize their goals of being their own bosses. Colleges should offer courses and degrees in entrepreneurship, and they should give students opportunities to practice their entrepreneurial skills—and earn money—while they’re in school.

A Support System That Helps Them Overcome Social and Economic Barriers to Education

Students aren’t merely questioning whether they can afford college. Many of them are also grappling with circumstances they make it difficult to stay in college, including personal and economic hardships and challenges that affect their mental and physical well-being.

Many students need access to housing, food, child care, and transportation assistance, as well as physical and mental health care services. The pandemic had a negative impact on student well-being, but studies show that student mental health was worsening before COVID-19 began to spread. The root causes extend beyond college campuses and include family issues, financial concerns, and racial injustice. But community colleges are uniquely suited to provide hubs of social support for students in need.

Funding and programs should be designed to help us support a rich diversity of students.

The PLT and JFF have advocated for redesigning systems to include assistance that strengthens student financial stability. We have also called for increases funding for the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And as members of the Today’s Students Coalition, we have urged Congress to provide emergency aid grants that would bolster wraparound supports for students.

Aside from social supports, students also need equitable access to learning environments that suit their preferences and circumstances.

For example, enrollment in online courses is rising dramatically, and this trend is unlikely to diminish, because many students find is more convenient to study at home as they balance family and work responsibilities along with their schoolwork.

The rise of online learning escalates the need for policies designed to make high-speed internet service and laptops, tablets, and other devices more accessible and more affordable. It also heightens the need for programs that offer digital literacy training to members of communities that have lacked access to technology. With recent federal investments in broadband infrastructure and digital equity, states now have a prime opportunity to partner strategically with community college and adult education systems to reach and serve all learners and workers. And JFF is curating a set of resources to support these efforts through our Digital Resilience in the American Workforce program.

A Strong Sense of Belonging

A sense of belonging is critical to any student’s success and engagement in college. Before the pandemic, research indicated that feelings of belonging were lower for first-generation college students and students who identified as Black, Asian or Pacific Islander, Native American, Hispanic, and Latinx than they were for members of other demographic groups. Building strong college communities has become even harder now that long-standing social inequities have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

Policymakers can help foster a sense of belonging among a wider cross-section of students by providing the funding necessary for tailored services that strengthen student engagement in and out of the classroom. But it’s equally important to use policy levers to provide adequate funding for personnel, because most of all, creating a sense of belonging requires people who are committed to building a community that welcomes learners of all racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds.

As a Trust, we have recommended tangible steps each and every college can take to undo the deep inequities in education and economic outcomes. Policymakers also have an opportunity to provide colleges with more funding for professional development of employees and social services support for students.

Funding and programs should be designed to help us support a rich diversity of students and ensure that they have the educational, financial, and social and emotional supports they need to focus on their studies, complete their programs, and acquire the skills, knowledge, and expertise they need to pursue successful careers that offer opportunities for economic advancement.

This blog was written by Policy Leadership Trust Co-Chairs Marcia Ballinger, president of Lorain County Community College, and Michael Baston, president of Cuyahoga Community College.

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