Community Colleges: Trailblazers for Innovation in HigherEd

Community college student using pen to point to writing on poster

Celebrating and learning from innovation in community colleges.

Change and challenge have been central to the world of education for the past decade, and even more so since 2020. Community colleges have been hit especially hard by enrollment declines, seeing a 13% decrease in enrollment since 2019. With lower application rates and decreasing student populations, some community colleges are struggling to survive. And with government funding cuts and shrinking budgets, other schools—like public K-12 schools – are also fighting to remain open and staffed. As a result, many community colleges and K-12 schools have achieved incredible gains on their efficiency and on their ability to deliver results to students. Read on to learn more about innovation in community colleges today.

Quote: These schools are demonstrating an ability to change in response to need and circumstance.Technology

Many community colleges have fully embraced new technology in order to better serve their students. According to Times Higher Education, “Advances in technologies such as virtual and augmented reality are now finding a home on community college campuses, helping students safely and conveniently gain critical hands-on experience.” With lower enrollment and budget cuts, community colleges have been forced to find ways over the last few years for students in hands-on programs to gain the hands-on skills they need for certain jobs. These schools are demonstrating an ability to change in response to need and circumstance, completely rethinking a program to keep it alive and expand access rather than counting on an eventual return to business as usual. This adaptability is key.


In a recent webinar from the Chronicle of Higher Education, community college leaders spoke about the need for community colleges to beQuote: One college is working on designing courses that can be taught in several modalities—flexible curriculums allow faculty to share their work. adaptable, responsive, and flexible in order to be accessible to students. There was discussion of the lessons learned from the pivot to remote learning—one community college realized that adding more online classes allowed them to reach students that didn’t have access to their classes before. Going forward, they plan to listen closely to what their students need. Other community colleges on the forum echoed this sentiment, with plans to pivot classes from in-person to online, or online to in-person, or add additional sections depending on student need and enrollment numbers. One college is working on designing courses that can be taught in several modalities—flexible curriculums allow faculty to share their work and schedules to be responsive to student need.

Community colleges enroll many non-traditional students and have a deep understanding of the ways that student needs vary. There isn’t one answer or one path forward that works for every student. There also isn’t one type of education that is the answer for every student to have a successful future. Community colleges maintain close ties to their communities – it’s in the name—and are often major providers for local economies and workforces. Some schools are taking advantage of these connections to directly connect students or prospective students with jobs. For instance, a community college in Alabama listened when a truck company described their worker shortage, and created a program that would provide their students with the in-demand skills needed and directly prepare them for an open role at the company.

Take this example and let it spark your thinking about the bigger picture. In what innovative ways can your college or university ensure that your students are prepared to enter the workforce? How can you connect with your community to support both your students and local businesses? With an increased emphasis in the workforce on upskilling and reskilling, are there additional programs you could add to fill those needs?

Quote: Higher education institutions must pay attention to being relevant and being responsive.Bill Pink, President of Grand Rapids Community College, noted that “HigherEd must pay attention to being relevant and being responsive… if we aren’t responding to our communities and if we aren’t thinking about the kind of education and services people need, we won’t be relevant anymore.” Every higher education institution can take this lesson from the community college world to heart.

Final thoughts

There is much we can learn from the problem-solving and innovation happening on community college campuses as they blaze a path to the future of education. It’s especially important to listen to your students and to embrace technology in order to tackle challenges. To learn more about innovation and change management at community colleges, check out this video featuring excerpts from the recent conference hosted by the League for Innovation in the Community College.


If you’re interested in innovating on your campus, reach out to PeopleAdmin today.