“Here in Indiana, we have an Ivy Tech campus within 30 miles of just about every Hoosier,” says Chris Lowery, senior vice president of workforce and careers at the community college, the largest public postsecondary institution in the state and the largest statewide community college system in the nation.
“We are in the community, and we are focused like a laser beam on making the connection between our neighbors and the economy here, making sure that when students walk out our doors, they are going to have a job, a better job or a career.”
To set students up for success upon graduation, Ivy Tech leverages connections to the advanced manufacturing, logistics, information technology, health care, construction and agbioscience industries that dominate the state’s economy.
“Often when I tell folks that Indiana is a tech state, they don’t believe me,” says Chris. “But they don’t have to look further than the tallest building in Indiana, which is a headquarters for Salesforce. The second tallest? Infosys.”
Across the country, the U.S. workforce is similarly having to adapt to compete in a global economy.
To ensure U.S. workers are prepared, Ivy Tech, along with five of the country’s most innovative community colleges, are participating in a cutting-edge pilot program to meet the urgent demand for skills-focused, market-driven education.
Run by the Education Design Lab with support from the Walton Family Foundation, the Community College Growth Engine Fund will help colleges leverage employer partnerships, relationships with K-12 school systems and regional workforce data to build stackable and transferrable “micro-pathways” for all students. That includes everyone from high schoolers taking college coursework to adult learners adding a new skill to their resume.
The program reflects the Walton Family Foundation’s commitment to advancing K-12 and post-secondary education models to ensure students acquire the skills, credentials and social capital to navigate 21st century careers.
To address this challenge, it’s important to create stronger partnerships between college and high school. This provides increased visibility into career pathways and the creation of innovative models that blend high school and college to create stronger, more seamless pathways to good wages and career growth.
“Sixty years ago, our economy relied on two different types of jobs,” says Chike Aguh, head of economic mobility pathways at the Education Design Lab.
“One required a four-year degree and the other you could jump into straight out of high school. But both career tracks could sustain a life and a family. The shift in our economy to more complex industries means that when it comes to training and credentials – education never stops. We need a more relevant standard for education – one built around both learner and employer needs.”
In practice, the fund will enable each school to build a holistic model of success for their community, from deeper outreach into local high schools to coursework designed explicitly for local employers. Rather than commit to an associate degree, a student might sign up for a single credential on machine operation. While there, they could also add a “soft skill” credential in customer communication. With two stackable credentials in place, they can either return to their jobs with bankable new skills or continue on toward a degree.
“The pathway to both higher education and career is open,” says Chike.
Chike believes that the programs and best practices being implemented in the pilot schools could eventually be scaled to hundreds of community colleges, serving one million students across the country.
Each pilot will focus heavily on breaking down barriers to an education-to-career pipeline for immigrants, People of Color and first-generation college students.
“If you can do the job, you should get the job,” says Chike. “But we know right now in America that simply isn’t the case, and it’s depriving companies of talent.”
To innovate for Indiana students, Ivy Tech is launching Skills Academy in the summer of 2021.
Skills Academy will be custom fit to each learner who walks through the door, and will assist them in building a program around their current skill set and letting them work toward personal professional goals on their own timeline, accruing credentials as they go.
“Say you’ve been working for your family business for 15 years and are ready to take on more of a leadership role,” says Chris. “Your existing experience means you could probably teach the course on payroll. But for a traditional degree, you’d have to take that course anyway.”
Chris believes that their students are less concerned with the classification of their degree. What they value is the tangible benefit to their lives.
“I was at the Batesville campus recently and ran into a student dressed in his local manufacturers' uniform,” says Chris. “He told me that if he completes a basic electricity course, his employer would raise his pay by 75 cents an hour. With overtime, that probably exceeds $2,000 per year. For the average Hoosier, that can mean a world of difference.”
Back at Education Design Lab, Chike and his colleagues act as a sounding board for the fledgling programs, bringing national attention to the effort, offering operational support and connecting school leaders as they navigate uncharted territory.
“We see an opportunity to spur not just individual economic mobility but regional development,” says Chike. “Community colleges are too big of an asset, and too important to ignore in terms of the economic and social moment we find ourselves in. With the right support, they are ready to meet this moment.”