Voices in Education

Want a Piece of Biden’s Planned $58 Billion Investment in Community Colleges and Workforce Training? Better Start Thinking Entrepreneurially
For those of us who work in community colleges, as well as for the 5.5 million students who attend them, the future under President Joe Biden is bright. Not only do community colleges feature prominently in the administration’s Plan for Education Beyond High School, but we’ve got one of our own in the White House with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, a longtime professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College.

There is every reason to believe, then, that substantial and much-needed federal aid should be making its way to community colleges, both in the near term and over the next several years. Indeed, on his first day in office, President Biden made available $21.2 billion in help to higher education included in the coronavirus relief legislation approved last December. He also released a summary of the $1.9 trillion relief package he has proposed to Congress, which includes $35 billion for community colleges as well as minority-serving, historically black, and tribal colleges and universities. This amount is likely to be a down payment on the $750 billion investment in community colleges and their students that Biden championed throughout his campaign.

Much of the media attention surrounding Biden’s plan for higher education has focused on his proposal to make the first two years of community college tuition-free for all students, as well as his intention to double the maximum value of the Pell grant and establish a federal program to help students who experience an unexpected financial challenge that threatens their ability to maintain continuous enrollment. These are important initiatives that will go a long way toward making community colleges more affordable for students, especially those from our most vulnerable and marginalized communities.

But while making college more affordable can be life-changing for students, it does little to improve the financial circumstances of the colleges themselves, which—thanks to decades of state and local disinvestment and heightened pressure for more workforce credentials and greater educational attainment—were rocky at best prior to 2020 and have gotten exponentially worse following the COVID-19 crisis and ensuing economic fallout.

Fortunately, Biden’s plan also calls for a $58 billion investment in community colleges and workforce training. The bulk of these funds would be used to create and support high-quality training programs and apprenticeships. This is not free money: the Biden plan is very clear that funded programs must be developed or modernized in collaboration with businesses, unions, state, local and tribal governments, universities, and/or high schools and that they must lead to high-demand, industry-recognized credentials.

In other words, to access this assistance community colleges must act in an entrepreneurial manner, relying on external stakeholders to help design programs tailored to community needs and engaging in the type of creative, intentional change that may disrupt established ways of doing business.

This is no small feat. Thinking and acting entrepreneurially—especially when it comes to industry partnerships and profit-generating initiatives—does not come easily to public-sector institutions such as community colleges, which are long used to operating in silos and creating budgets around expected enrollments and governmental allocations rather than programs or outcomes.

Yet the brilliance of the Biden plan is that to qualify for this much-needed federal assistance in the near future, community colleges must demonstrate a willingness to engage in the very same financial, operational, and educational paradigm shifts that will ultimately ensure their long-term financial sustainability. For if community colleges do not learn to think and act in an entrepreneurial manner—keeping their institutional mission and the needs of students and communities at the heart of all new initiatives—they have little chance of surmounting the obstacles in front of them.

And the obstacles are substantial: declining enrollments, reduced allocations from states and localities, the increasingly high cost of providing the technical and middle-skill training programs necessary to drive regional economies, a continued need to provide developmental programs for educationally disadvantaged or returning adult students, as well as the growing expenses associated with providing support services to facilitate the persistence and attainment of all students. These challenges—as well as a dawning realization that the way we prepare students for traditional careers is no longer sufficient to train them for the jobs of the future—all scream for a new approach to community college education, one that is not confined to the realm of what has always been done, but is instead grounded in local needs and is propelled by a culture that embraces innovation and rewards collaboration, enables risk-taking and supports iterative problem-solving.

In my latest book, Creating Entrepreneurial Community Colleges: A Design Thinking Approach (Harvard Education Press, 2021), I outline a framework for approaching community college entrepreneurship in an empathic manner, one that ensures that new ventures amplify, rather than sacrifice, the institution’s mission and needs of its stakeholders. This mission-oriented approach provides an incredible opportunity to rethink how community colleges educate and train students, participate in the regional transformations of their communities, experiment with the internal changes necessary to sustain innovative ideas and, ultimately, guide colleges toward greater economic viability.

If community colleges are to transcend the existential crisis in which they find themselves—one exacerbated but not caused by the events of 2020—their leaders will need to embrace a mission-oriented approach to entrepreneurship, develop campus cultures that value and reward an entrepreneurial mindset, and collaborate with business, community, and other groups to innovate the ways in which we prepare students for the jobs of the future. And in so doing, they will be well positioned to receive some of President Biden’s planned $58 billion for community colleges and workforce training, which can go a long way toward funding this institutional transformation and ensuring that community colleges can continue to provide students with a reliable, high-quality path to the middle class.

About the Author: Carrie B. Kisker, Ph.D., is an education research and policy specialist with Kisker Education Consulting and a director of the Center for the Study of Community Colleges. She is the author of Creating Entrepreneurial Community Colleges: A Design Thinking Approach (Harvard Education Press, 2021).