How community colleges are looking to the future

Planning requires a frank assessment of demographic and economic projections

Recently, the Community College System of New Hampshire board of trustees met over two days to assess our current strategic plans and goals and develop forward-looking strategies. While these types of meetings are often called retreats, the more appropriate characterization is that the discussions were all about advancing. The focus was on how we can best position our seven colleges to meet New Hampshire’s future needs.

These needs include providing education and training for a skilled workforce and affordable programs that enable residents across the state and from all backgrounds to advance economically and in their career development pursuits.

To reach New Hampshire’s goal of having 65 percent of its working-age population with some postsecondary credential by 2025, we must be focused on affordability, access, student success and the economic alignment of our programs with employment needs. In a state with low unemployment and thousands of job openings, we must be strategic in how we focus resources on what is needed to support economic competitiveness.

Alongside discussions of educational strategies, we looked, as we must, at the long-term financial outlook of our colleges and system. This is not simply tweaking expenditures to match shifting revenues, but also looking at structural characteristics that will result in ongoing financial sustainability and ensure that we make appropriate investments in the faculty and staff who support our students and mission.

Planning for the future requires a frank assessment of demographic and economic projections, and working today to prepare for the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow.

This involves evaluating how we recruit, retain and ensure the success of our students; assessing the effectiveness of our program offerings and delivery methods; reviewing how we work with industry partners; and figuring out how to continue to be as agile as possible to adjust to shifting workforce opportunities and demographic realities.

To help us plot our role in New Hampshire’s education-to-career landscape, we included the education commissioner and deputy commissioner, the commissioner of the Department of Business and Economic Affairs and the economic development director in our discussions. We are working increasingly well together creating pathways from K-12 into postsecondary education, and from there to careers in New Hampshire.

A significant portion of our state’s economy is fueled by individuals with the skills required in high-demand fields like healthcare, information technology, the sciences
 nd manufacturing, and New Hampshire’s community colleges offer a broad range of such career-focused programs. We also serve as an important first step to an affordable transfer pathway to a four-year degree and beyond.

An important focus for community colleges has been creating “guided pathways” from secondary education into college to help students more effectively choose an academic pursuit linked to life and career interests, understand labor market data related to each profession, earn a credential, and be aware of how to plan a seamless transfer pathway to a four-year college. These efforts save students time and money, lead to career opportunities in NH and help to combat the high migration of students going out of state for college and for job opportunities post-college.

One notable feature of guided pathways is how this framework is also being embraced by our K-12 leaders, leading to a seamless path for students in high schools, including their outstanding career and technical education centers that provide on-ramps for so many of our young people to in-demand professions that provide economic stability and social mobility.

Stepping aside from the day-to-day is important for exploring new ideas. We look forward to moving ahead with this critical work and expanding the discussion to include others who are focused on the same issues, including the governor, members of the Legislature, industry, the university system and private college partners and community leaders — all working together to support a strong future for New Hampshire.

Dr. Ross Gittell is chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire. Jeremy Hitchcock is a trustee and chair of the board’s committee on student and academic affairs and workforce development.

Categories: Opinion