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Strategic Talent Development for Inclusive Economic Opportunity

September 8, 2023

Anne M. Kress
Practices & Centers

Community colleges have the power to accelerate Black economic advancement—and to meet critical regional workforce needs in the process.

How might a community college transform to become the leading source of Black talent in high-wage, high-growth fields in its region? Jobs for the Future (JFF) and Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) are partnering to find out—and to bring what they learn about creating economic opportunity for all learners to community colleges across the country.

National employment data show that Black workers are underrepresented in high-wage jobs in growing industries and overrepresented in low-wage service jobs most at risk to automation. McKinsey’s Institute for Black Economic Mobility estimates that there’s an annual disparity of $220 billion between Black wages today and what they would be in a scenario of full racial parity in the U.S. labor market. The patterns of occupational segregation that cause this disparity are due in part to low rates of postsecondary completion among Black learners, particularly in programs associated with high-wage, high-growth careers. Community colleges, which enroll more than one-third of all Black undergrads, are positioned to play an important role in disrupting occupational segregation and driving economic mobility for Black learners across the United States.

For the past year, JFF’s Center for Racial Economic Equity and NOVA have been working together on an effort to diversify high-wage, high-demand career pathways. This collaboration is the initial pilot project of the Center’s advisory services practice, which was launched in 2022 with support from Capital One to focus on increasing the number and share of Black learners accessing and completing programs leading to high-wage jobs in growing industries. JFF connected with NOVA, a longtime partner, based on its leadership on student success in Virginia and nationally and its innovative approach to connecting learners to workforce opportunity. Together, we are developing a model JFF will use to design strategies for Black learner success in high-value pathways and then scale that approach nationwide by sharing it with colleges across the country. Significantly, the success strategies we devise could be used with other student populations, including adult learners, students who are parents, and Latinx learners.

We are developing a model JFF will use to design strategies for Black learner success in high-value pathways and then scale that approach nationwide by sharing it with colleges across the country.

NOVA by the Numbers

NOVA is one of the largest community colleges in the United States, serving more than 70,000 students annually across six campuses. It’s the largest supplier of talent in the Northern Virginia region—an area where 61% of residents hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 32% nationally. Health care, IT, and cybersecurity are growing industries in the region and popular focus areas of the degrees awarded at NOVA. Although Northern Virginia is home to several of the country’s wealthiest counties, students at NOVA, who represent the vital diversity of the region, are two to three times more likely to come from one of the region’s lowest-income census tracks. Black learners represent 15% of the student population at NOVA. The three-year graduation rate for all students is 33%; for Black students it’s 25%.

The Power of Data

JFF and NOVA launched this project with a process of discovery and self-reflection. Collaborating with consulting partners, we convened leaders from across NOVA’s six campuses to review high-level data on outcomes for NOVA’s Black learners and walk through student journeys from the perspectives of various personas that captured the complex intersectionality of students. The process helped us identify points of both friction and momentum students experience as they seek to access and complete learning pathways that lead to high-wage, high-demand careers. The NOVA team set ambitious goals: to become a national leader in serving Black learners and to build a framework that could serve as a foundation for improving outcomes for other student segments at NOVA—all grounded in a vision of inclusive talent development for the region.

In the fall of 2022, JFF and our consulting partners conducted quantitative and qualitative research with NOVA faculty, administrators, and students to understand how Black learners experience the institution. We worked with NOVA’s Labor Market Intelligence team to analyze the Northern Virginia labor market and assess NOVA’s program alignment with high-wage, high-demand careers in the region. And we created a dashboard that maps data on Black learner outcomes across the student journey to highlight areas for potential intervention. Among our findings, this work yielded the following insights:

  • Black learners at NOVA are enrolling in programs that are well-aligned with high-wage, high-demand fields, but many are not persisting or seeking continuing education.
  • There remains a stigmatized view of community college overall among students and other stakeholders, who may not have enough information about the value of a NOVA education.
  • While NOVA offers several resources to support academic and career success, many students are unaware of the resources or struggle to find time to use them.
  • Departments are not always using the available data on career outcomes for students, which makes it difficult to help students make informed decisions.

Moving to Action

Based on our insights, we developed a set of potential interventions to improve outcomes for Black learners in high-value pathways, building on efforts already underway at NOVA. We prioritized scalability and sustainability throughout to ensure maximum impact for all students. Here are some of the areas we’re exploring:

  • Expanding outreach and support for dual enrollment to engage more students of color, building on recent efforts to offer dual enrollment courses online.
  • Offering training in inclusive pedagogy and available college resources to better support the faculty’s role in student persistence and completion.
  • Creating a new “concierge” role on each campus to connect students to available resources.
  • Building out career supports and integrating real-world experience into all academic programs. NOVA has redesigned its career services offerings, increasing paid internships and piloting a new guaranteed job interview initiative that connects students directly with local employers.
  • Forming intentional coalitions to improve collaboration with businesses and community-based organizations serving areas that have long experienced a lack of public and private investment.

This fall, we hope to pilot, assess, and scale successful interventions. And while these strategies are informed by the outcomes and experiences of Black learners, they are intended to benefit all NOVA students.

Weaving Into Strategy

Our work together has informed NOVA’s new strategic plan, which integrates a focus on connecting students to economic opportunity through both transfers to four-year universities and opportunities for direct employment in high-demand, high-wage fields. Central to NOVA’s approach is building partnerships with area employers and regional chambers of commerce to improve work-based learning opportunities and job placement for students. Our shared work involves shifting institutional practices to keep students who are navigating the greatest challenges along their academic and career journeys at the center—recognizing that their success will yield extraordinary and lasting benefits for themselves and the regional economy.

Even at a time when there’s uncertainty and polarized public discourse about the roles colleges can or should play in advancing racial equity, we’re energized by this work and we remain committed to living the mission of community colleges to serve and lift up our communities. We’re grateful for the opportunity to partner on this work, and we’re eager to share what we learn with leaders across the learn and work ecosystem.

Our shared work involves shifting institutional practices to keep students who are navigating the greatest challenges along their academic and career journeys at the center.