Community colleges: Improving lives and your community’s economic vitality

By Avis Proctor

The community’s college.

It’s a phrase I think about often and share when I speak to our students and employees as well as in the community. To me, it means improving lives and the economic vitality of our community through education generation after generation and being responsive to current needs and proactive in preparing for the future.

Harper College, located in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs, is our community’s college, and throughout the pandemic, we have sharpened our focus on serving our students and community members during this challenging time. When we transitioned to fully online learning last spring, we knew it wasn’t enough to just shift all of our courses to remote learning. We knew we needed to support our students by making Chromebooks, wi-fi hot spots and graphing calculators available to address those technology gaps. We also increased our tuition relief and emergency supports for students, especially those with food, housing and other financial insecurities.

We created a scholarship program for short-term training programs to help those affected by job loss to get back on their feet as quickly as possible and enhanced our counseling services to support our students’ mental well-being. Additionally, we have held tuition steady for two years and reduced or eliminated student fees to keep college affordable and accessible despite the other economic hardships our students are facing. We also cultivated space for our students and employees to strengthen their awareness and capacity to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion, fully recognizing that we are on a journey to inclusive excellence.

These efforts and many others at Harper College helped our students stay on track during Covid-19. And they were repeated across the nation at our sister institutions.

What community colleges do best

As we celebrate Community College Month, I am reminded of the unique history, purpose and special role our institutions play in our communities, educating nearly 12 million credit and non-credit students annually, and 41% of all undergraduates, 39% of first-time freshmen, 56% of Native Americans, 53% of Hispanics, 43% of Blacks, and 38% of Asian/Pacific Islanders, according to AACC Fast Facts 2021. We are a beacon of opportunity and hope for families looking to change their lives through various educational, training and reskilling opportunities.

But our mission is not only to address current problems, but to be adaptable, resilient and ready for tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities. That’s what community colleges do best.

As our state and country work toward an economic recovery, we will need to address shortages of skilled workers in critical areas, such as healthcare and early childhood education, while continuing to build the pipeline of talent in growing fields, such as advanced manufacturing, cannabis, cybersecurity and logistics.

We do this through innovative industry partnerships, such as developing a certified nursing assistant to registered nurse apprenticeship program with hospice and palliative care provider JourneyCare, which recognized the recruiting challenges that a nationwide nursing shortage would present. Or by launching a free training program with Prologis Inc. to prepare workers in the Chicago region for careers in transportation, distribution and logistics.

As our recent history shows from the Great Recession, there are no better institutions to support this revitalization than community colleges, our local experts in workforce and training needs. And we stand ready to answer the bell again.

So, as we plan for more innovation in teaching and learning, infuse equity and inclusivity into our institutional culture, and support the next great economic recovery locally and nationally, we will also be collaborating with our K-12 institutions, partnering with businesses and universities, and leveraging relationships with our community organizations. And always, being the community’s college.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.


Avis Proctor

is president of William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Illinois.