I never thought I would see the light at the end of this COVID-19 tunnel, but, like the fragrances of early spring, a breath of fresh air has overtaken my soul. While reflecting on the economic devastation that this pandemic has caused, a voice inside my head whispered, “Community colleges hold the key to curing an ailing regional economy.”
Let me share my insight and propose a few thoughts that bring definite hope for the future even though most economists agree that economic recovery, particularly a significant rebound, will be slow after the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
While many of us suffered through the isolation and separation of friendly gatherings, this pandemic — the great disrupter — has also forced into reality a new vision of possibilities and opportunities.
Now is the time for the Ventura County Community College District (VCCCD) to take the wheel and drive the economy toward recovery by aggressively working with its regional K-12 partners and local businesses by creating strategic partnerships that are focused, intentional collaborations to supply the workforce and create the jobs to build the sustainable economic foundation for the region.
VCCCD has averaged an 8-10% decrease in enrollment since the pandemic began. Rightly so, the major focus in the news of the decreasing enrollment elicited concern for many students and prospective students who are struggling with remote learning while overcoming the challenges of obtaining the necessary technologies to proficiently respond to online learning.
While it is true that this increases the likelihood of student dropout rates or potential students not enrolling in college, just as concerning is the potential impact on the regional economy of a decline in the supply of graduates with the needed skills. This impact is largely overlooked.
A decrease in VCCCD enrollments equates to a decrease in providing the skilled workforce needed to build the region’s infrastructure and push us toward economic recovery.
Approximately 31,000 students enter our educational doorway on an annual basis. Of those students, over 72% are 18 to 24 years old. Over 75% of our total student population that attends Moorpark, Oxnard and Ventura colleges is comprised of underrepresented ethnicities and/or low-income student populations.
VCCCD offers multiple educational pathways to obtain a certificate, associate degree and associate degree for transfer to a four-year educational institution. One in five students who attend VCCCD focus on a certificate or degree in career education.
To kickstart the economy, we are building an enhanced continuum of career education opportunities. There are numerous opportunities, including the implementation of dual enrollment career education courses with our K-12 partners, where our feeder high school students can simultaneously earn high school and college credit, and the creation of new curriculum that offers high school students the ability to participate in pre-apprenticeship coursework, enabling them to enter into an apprenticeship when they turn 18.
Other opportunities include the creation of new short-term (4-12 weeks) skills-building college courses to assist businesses in obtaining employees with the interpersonal skills and technical building blocks to be successful upon entering the work environment and the creation of new certificate and degree completion pathways that integrate internships and apprenticeships (“Earn and Learn”).
We have also created 40- to 60-hour training sessions for “contract education” to the region’s businesses, while the colleges are taking these same sessions and converting them to noncredit coursework. Progressing through a college curriculum approval process can oftentimes take 12 to 18 months. By offering these same courses as contract education, VCCCD is able to quickly pivot, educate Ventura County’s workforce and meet businesses’ demands and needs.
We also plan to offer the use of Employment Training Panel (ETP) funding to offset the cost to the business. The design and delivery will vary from one to the next, especially as we work with businesses to create innovative custom-made solutions that meet their workforce needs.
Pandemics end. Our economy will recover, if we move “Together Toward Tomorrow!”
Dr. Cynthia Herrera is the Associate Vice Chancellor of Strategic Partnerships, Enrollment, and Advancement at the Ventura County Community College District.