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The Steps Community College Leaders are Taking to Help Arizona

Lee Lambert, Stacy Klippenstein, Darcy Renfro

Community college is a crucial piece of the education system for learners throughout Arizona, and an important tool to drive Arizona’s economy. As unemployment numbers continue to rise, more people are looking for ways to reskill and upskill. Community colleges become especially important in helping people prepare to enter the post-COVID workforce. We spoke to three community college leaders from across the state to hear what they and their institutions are doing to help students and communities during this time.

Lee Lambert is Chancellor of Pima Community College and serves on the Achieve60AZ Board of Directors.

Stacy Klippenstein is the President of Mohave Community College.

Darcy Renfro is Maricopa Community Colleges’ Chief Workforce and Economic Development Officer and chair of the Achieve60AZ Board of Directors.

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education?

Lee Lambert: For me, it’s the intersection of things that really have not been talked about: pandemic, industry 4.0, and race. The key is how these three actually come together and lay the groundwork for reimagining education, not only now but for the future of education, teaching, learning, and work.

Stacy Klippenstein: I think everyone is talking about the use of different modalities to teach via distance education. How do you Zoom? How do you do synchronous and asynchronous education? And, how do we better allow for virtual competency-based education, especially in career and technical education?

Darcy Renfro: We are learning that digital divide issues are more prevalent than previously understood. The pandemic has underscored deeper disconnects that are felt across a large range of learners from early grades through adults. Removing brick-and-mortar options for the entire population hits the less affluent and most vulnerable among us. While the new economy continues toward more reliance on technology to keep Arizona’s economy competitive, we must be thoughtful to ensure that we do not create even more gaps for populations where educational attainment is much lower than our state and national averages.    

What has changed in education that you think will remain when students eventually return to classrooms? 

Lee Lambert: What we do comes down to people. The people piece will not change. What’s going to have to be rethought is how we as humans interact with technology. We need to make sure the human and the technology elements are fully integrated into the learner’s experience so that we can give students the optimal learning environment to succeed.

Stacy Klippenstein: Student services. How do we continue to support students in new ways online, through the application, registration, tutoring, student success, and advising process? Some of this will be done virtually, like how healthcare is moving to telehealth. 

Darcy Renfro: From the workforce development perspective, what has changed is the focus on short-term training and skill credentials that can help somebody either move to a better a job or get a job more quickly.

How do postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently for graduation and work given a recession?

Lee Lambert: Today’s graduating students are not just living through a pandemic, they also lived through the Great Recession. They are living through an era approaching Great Depression levels, the reality of what happens when inequality persists and is not fully addressed in society. So this graduating class is actually in the best position to make the most sense of all of this because they’re living through it. As long as we help facilitate learning around this current reality, these students will become better leaders going forward, having lived through some of the most difficult challenges in recent memory.

Stacy Klippenstein: The people who are losing their jobs right now often do not have a postsecondary credential or degree. This is why we support the Achieve60AZ goal. There are industries waiting to pick back up once the economy begins to recover, and people are going to need a postsecondary education to get those jobs.

Darcy Renfro:   These are unprecedented times where we are seeing entire industry sectors practically decimated over a period of months. We have record unemployment, and job growth has been impacted unevenly across industries. Postsecondary institutions have an obligation to help students understand those shifts in the job market and direct resources toward areas where students will most likely find employment even in economic downturns. We know that a postsecondary degree or credential is valuable currency for all individuals in the job market. Working together to help support Arizona students and advance educational attainment needs to remain a top priority for all of us.

How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect opportunities for adult education?

Lee Lambert: Pre-COVID, there were lots of conversations occurring around the future of work and the need for individuals to skill, reskill, and upskill. We are talking about digital skills, social-emotional skills, higher cognitive skills, and the ability to be adaptable and flexible. None of that has changed because of the pandemic.

Stacy Klippenstein: Adults are looking at what their plan is for the future during a time of great uncertainty. Some adults now have an opening in their schedule because they are suddenly unemployed. Some just need more adult basic education services to get their GED. I think offering those types of opportunities now is critical.

Darcy Renfro: It’s very hard to tell right now. Historically, when the economy is good, our enrollments go down. When the economy is bad, our enrollments go up as people look to gain new skills and credentials. This recession seems different because of the pandemic and lack of clarity around safety and health. We’re not seeing the same patterns we have in the past.  At the same time, we are seeing more employers focusing on improving learning and growth opportunities for employees with an increased emphasis on specific skill credentials that are transferable between jobs. 

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities? In what new ways do you think we will address educational inequities and challenges moving forward?

Lee Lambert: The pandemic has really shined a spotlight on the flaws of our system, and George Floyd’s murder has sparked a new level of race consciousness. So many people were already struggling pre-COVID, and now we’re seeing that struggle on television. The question is, what are we going to do now? Are people going to step up and address these inequities that have been happening in our society for a long time? It takes dollars and leadership to make a difference to inequities like closing the digital divide.

Stacy Klippenstein: One thing we have recognized is the work we can do for adults with no higher education and adults from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. We are also focusing more on our Latino students. We’re making some new changes to the ways we teach, and the ways we connect with and serve all students. 

Darcy Renfro:   Access to technology is underscoring the resource divide for low-income individuals and families. We have a lot of students with food and housing insecurity that are doing everything they can to make a better life for themselves. Not having a physical school or resource to go to makes it much, much harder.  Entire communities need to face these hard truths and work together to close these gaps, coordinate supports, and align resources that will give everyone the chance to succeed. 

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to Achieve60AZ given our new reality?

Lee Lambert: If our K-12 system and our higher education system could come together and really reimagine what the students’ experience ought to be, and we build a system around the learner, we could go a long way in terms of skills acquisition, closing educational attainment, and really getting to that goal of Achieve60AZ.

Stacy Klippenstein: We need to find new ways to get people industry-recognized credentials, certificates, and degrees necessary for the new workforce. We’re concentrating on adults because we think that that’s going to move the needle in our community. We’re always going to go after the high school market, the traditional student age market. But we have not been planning for the adult student market in Mohave County, and we need to fix that.

Darcy Renfro: There are two areas that seem most urgent. First, ensuring that high school seniors continue their education, and putting resources and energy into that transitional time. Second, supporting adults that have some college and no degree, particularly those who’ve been in the hospitality industry as that’s been hit the hardest. How do we help them transition into other fields, industry sectors and jobs, and get them the skills training and, in some cases, degrees that will enable them to do that?

Source Article: “The Steps Community College Leaders are Taking to Help Arizona” Achieve60AZ

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