In the wake of COVID-19, survey data indicated that adult workers had growing skepticism about the role of education in landing a good job. It’s shown up in America’s community colleges. National enrollments declined in 2020-2021, contrasting sharply with past recessions.

Working to Learn, a recent white paper from Harvard University’s Project on Workforce brings new data to the forefront for college leaders weighing next steps. The researchers studied applicants to New Profit’s Postsecondary Innovation for Equity (PIE) Initiative to better understand the landscape of social entrepreneurs working at the intersection of education and careers.

Many of these programs pose potential alternatives to traditional higher education - thus community colleges are well-served to pay mind to these findings.

The PIE initiative launched in 2019 as an open application process for funding and capacity building targeting self-identified “innovators” in postsecondary education and employment. The corresponding dataset featured in Working to Learn is diverse, ranging from small startups and social enterprises to well-established non-profits and community-based organizations. PIE winners can be found here.

The PIE organizations tend to be smaller than community colleges—the median applicant had annual revenues of around $2.5 million and served 525 learners.

But the field appears to be young and expanding. Over half of organizations applying to PIE were formed in the decade prior and 25 percent in the last five years. More than 80 percent were growing in learners served year-to-year, and learners were increasing faster than expenses.

That growth is just one reason why it makes sense for community college leaders to take note. Here are four key takeaways from Working to Learn for community colleges seeking to attract and retain students seeking workforce training.

  1. Community colleges may have untapped fundraising potential to support their workforce mission.
  2. Community college programs can stand out by emphasizing quality employer relationships and wraparound services.
  3. Almost all workforce training providers need to better balance job-specific and foundational skills.
  4. Both community colleges and non-profits should prioritize tracking the quality of jobs that graduates secure.

Read the full article about community colleges and workforce development by Rachel Lipson and Shalin Jyotishi at New America.