As with many past periods of economic turmoil in the state, the pandemic has had a particularly strong impact on lower-income Californians, stemming from job losses early in the pandemic and exacerbated by rising costs of housing and other goods. California’s community college system provides a potential solution. An engine of economic mobility, the state’s community colleges provide career training and continuing education for more than 2.1 million students.
Navigating these programs however is often no easy feat for students – information and curriculum is dispersed throughout different colleges and departments, and potential learners have to grapple with the cost of education while balancing work and family. Those who may benefit from additional support offered by state and local government programs to offset expenses or help connect learners with job opportunities have to engage with a separate system that can be equally difficult, and time-intensive, to navigate.
California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy, an organization that seeks to drive more equitable higher education and workforce outcomes for Californians through research and advocacy, recently announced a regional pilot program geared toward making these systems more cohesive, easier to navigate and improving students’ overall career readiness.
California Competes Executive Director Dr. Su Jin Jez, a co-lead of the California Economic Summit Education and Workforce policy work group, joined us to discuss the program and how this work is leveraging resources within the community colleges and surrounding community of employers and local government to help Los Angeles area students better navigate pathways into good paying jobs.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CA FWD: How did this program come to be?
Dr. Jez, California Competes: At the start of the pandemic, Compton College President and CEO Keith Curry saw that the disruptions and impacts from COVID-19 were exacerbating economic inequities across the local community. Amid new emergency funding and resources made available, he had the vision to take this moment in crisis to optimize his institutions’ practices and processes, better serve students, and strengthen connections to high-quality jobs. Given our expertise in higher education research and policy, he sought us out for counsel. Our work was done through two phases:
- Discovery Phase, which focused on conducting research to examine Compton College’s purpose, desired outcomes, structures, processes, funding, and stakeholder experiences relevant to the Strong Workforce Program, Adult Education, and federal Perkins funding. Through this research, we identified preliminary findings and recommendations that elevated workforce development efforts as an integral component of the college-wide mission and everyone’s shared responsibility.
- Strategy Development Phase, which is when we worked with Compton College leadership to develop a strategy for implementing the recommendations and aligning planning for workforce development with the annual college-wide budgeting and strategic planning processes.
As a result of this work, Compton College reported increased engagement around workforce development campus wide, integration of our recommendations, inclusion of workforce development as a priority, and progress on implementation of recommendations, such as raising Compton College’s profile in the community as a partner in workforce development. Now with this wider program, we seek to extend the scope and geographic reach of the work across the region and support and evaluate the institutions’ implementation of their tailored recommendations.
What was the process for the selection of the colleges?
The leadership at Compton College, El Camino College, Los Angeles Southwest College, and West Los Angeles College all saw a need to reimagine how their institutions advance career readiness. They are also located in the same geographic area, sharing a local economy, labor market, and key political boundaries (Los Angeles County’s 2nd District, represented by Supervisor Holly Mitchell, which means the colleges share the same public services, including workforce development agencies and social services providers).
This region also bore the brunt of economic shifts and hardships during the pandemic. In July 2021, 14 percent of Compton residents and 12 percent of Lynwood residents were unemployed and seeking work, a substantially higher percentage than in L.A. County (10%) or the state overall (8%). By working in collaboration, rather than in silos or in competition, the colleges can better serve community residents. Moreover, they can streamline engagement with employers by not having each college individually call on employers to support students’ career readiness.
How did the connection with the supervisor’s office come to be?
The county offices are responsible for administering several social safety net programs and play a central role in workforce development services, which we saw could be better leveraged to support residents as they move through higher education.
Supervisor Mitchell’s office has the same goals as the postsecondary institutions of meeting the needs of its community members. With this program, we’re bringing all the key players together to strategically streamline their workforce development and career readiness efforts and improve the education and economic outcomes of their community.
What exactly does that support and connection into county services look like?
There are numerous benefit programs and services available to support residents, yet they are not being fully utilized due to access barriers, siloed departments, and complexity of program eligibility, application requirements, and administration. An example of this is the CalFresh program, where only 22% of eligible college students in California ever receive the benefit.
Our vision is improved coordination between higher education institutions and the various government-administered supports, so that students automatically get what they need to focus on what they enrolled in their postsecondary programs for (to learn!) and move seamlessly through their educational and career trajectory.
What that will look like is what this very project aims to find out. In the end, we hope to inform the wider higher education and workforce development ecosystem of a model for effectively integrating workforce efforts across the campus as well as state and federal policies that can energize and support such reforms.
Can you give me an idea of how this pilot is looking to integrate career readiness across the student experience?
The practice reforms would focus on shifting the culture and structures of higher education to recognize and embed career readiness as a shared responsibility districtwide. This could look like connections to guided pathways reforms, incorporation of career readiness metrics in institution’s goals, better engagement of employers as partners, and expanding work-based learning opportunities.
The policy reforms will be revealed through the pilot. We plan to understand what the policy barriers are and what are the changes needed so that this vision of clear pathways and successful transition from education to meaningful employment, especially for students from underserved backgrounds, can happen naturally.
What does cross-sector collaboration look like in this context? How is this additive to what exists for connection with industry?
An innovative part of this program is the engagement with the county office. We now can leverage their efforts and services and share expertise, partnerships, and resources across all parties in the region. Through this project, we hope to unravel what is the optimal structure for this type of cross-sector collaboration.
How are you measuring success?
California Competes anticipates increased community college enrollment by students who otherwise would have opted for educational institutions less well-suited to serve their needs or opted out of college completely (particularly students of color and student parents who are often left behind in more traditional college structures and priorities), higher rates of retention and completion, and better transitions to high quality, well-paid jobs. The mechanisms for this work will vary depending on college-level strengths and challenges, which is why the campus-level research is so critical.
Ultimately, this project will support education in this moment of crisis, while ultimately driving change that will strengthen career readiness, the economy, and communities.